The discovery that monounsaturated fat could be healthful came from the Seven Countries Study during the 1960s. It revealed that people in Greece and other parts of the Mediterranean region enjoyed a low rate of heart disease despite a high-fat diet. The main fat in their diet, though, was not the saturated animal fat common in countries with higher rates of heart disease. It was olive oil, which contains mainly monounsaturated fat. This finding produced a surge of interest in olive oil and the "Mediterranean diet," a style of eating regarded as a healthful choice today.
Since sources of fat are more calorie-dense, it is important to understand what a serving of a fat is equivalent to. For example, one teaspoon of butter, margarine or mayonnaise is one fat serving. For times when you may not have a measuring spoon available, a visual equivalent of one teaspoon is the tip of your thumb. See below for examples of serving sizes for added fats.
Monounsaturated fat can be found in a variety of foods and oils. There is a consistent amount of research which suggests that monounsaturated fat foods can actually improve blood cholesterol levels and decrease the risk of cardiovascular diseases (8). Foods which contain monounsaturated fats include nuts, vegetable oils, peanut butter and avocados.
Wondering how to eat more healthy fats to help improve your health? There are plenty of healthy fat diet plan options out there, but the easiest way to get started is by simply adding a few nutritious ingredients into the meals you already eat. Try swapping out the low-fat yogurt for a full-fat variety, sprinkling nuts and seeds into your oatmeal, salads and smoothies and drizzling olive oil over roasted veggies and side dishes for an added dose of healthy fats.
Fish such as salmon and sardines are an excellent source of omega-3 fats, as is flaxseed. Nuts (walnuts, almonds, pecans, macadamia nuts) all contain different mixes of good fats. Egg yolks contain a terrific mix of both saturated and unsaturated fat (as does beef). Coconut contains a particularly good form of fat known as MCT (medium chain triglycerides). And extra virgin olive oil is a rich source of healthy monounsaturated fat.
In Grain Brain Dr. David Perlmutter describes our ancestor’s diet as being 75% fat, 20% protein and 5% carbs compared to our current diet of 60% carbs, 20% protein and 20% fat. Dr. Perlmutter goes on to explain how the cornerstone of many of today’s health conditions, including Alzheimer’s, ADHD, depression, anxiety and chronic headaches are linked to inflammation in the body and brain triggered by carbs.
Perez-Martinez, P., Moreno-Conde, M., Cruz-Teno, C., Ruano, J., Fuentes, F., Delgado-Lista, J., Garcia-Rios, A., Marin, C., Gomez-Luna, M.J., Perez-Jimenez, F. and Roche, H.M., 2010. Dietary fat differentially influences regulatory endothelial function during the postprandial state in patients with metabolic syndrome: from the LIPGENE study. Atherosclerosis, 209(2), pp.533-538.
Leading the charge of the healthy fat brigade are avocados. This wonder fruit is essentially Mother Nature’s butter. It’s rich, creamy, and—unlike butter—an acceptable food to eat all on its own. While you should still limit yourself to a quarter or half of an avocado per meal, you have no reason to fear its fats. Avocados pack in healthy monounsaturated fats that contain oleic acid, which can actually help quiet feelings of hunger, according to a Food Function study. They also give you two things butter doesn’t: protein and fiber.
Canola oil, derived from the seeds of a plant in the broccoli family, has a near-perfect 2.5:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats. According to a study review published in Experimental Biology and Medicine, people who achieve a dietary ratio similar to this have been able to battle cancer, arthritis, and asthma more effectively. The neutral oil is also rich in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an essential omega-3 fatty acid that may play a role in weight maintenance, according to a recent study.
But wait, bile isn’t the only thing added in here, our pancreas also adds pancreatic digestive juices called lipase to the duodenum which helps break down triglycerides into two fatty acids and a monoglyceride. After this step, though, the fat droplets don’t just disappear. Instead the fatty acids and monoglycerides are absorbed in the microvilli (remember these from Digestion, part I?) and reassembled into triglycerides.
Of the three macronutrients, carbohydrates are our body’s preferred energy source because they are easier and quicker for our bodies to digest and use for energy. On the other hand, fat takes a different route before we can use it as energy because it is insoluble in our blood. Think of fat as being a reserve or our long-term source of energy that sticks around the longest. On the technical side, which we’re about to get very technical: fat is three fatty acids + a glycerol molecule, or a triglyceride (tri- as in three and glyceride).
Investigators looked at the relationship between saturated fat intake and coronary heart disease (CHD), stroke, and cardiovascular disease (CVD). Their controversial conclusion: “There is insufficient evidence from prospective epidemiologic studies to conclude that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD, stroke, or CVD.”(13)
Fat came under scrutiny in the 1960s when the sugar industry paid Harvard researchers to publish a review on sugar, fat, and heart disease. The sugar industry funded the research to cover up warning signs, which emerged in the 1950s, that sugar caused heart disease (1). Shifting the blame away from sugar, the researchers singled out saturated fat as the cause of heart disease.
Plus, eating a good variety of foods high in fat can also boost brain function. Loading up on the healthy fat foods can soothe inflammation and promote blood flow to the brain to enhance cognitive function. In particular, medium-chain fatty acids, omega-3 fatty acids and unsaturated fats play a critical role in brain function and development. (11, 37, 38)
Smear some toast or apple slices with peanut butter and you have a breakfast or snack with staying power. The unsaturated fats in peanut butter help make the meal satisfying by making it take longer to digest, and it’s also packed with protein. Stick to natural peanut butter to avoid the added sugars and unhealthy partially hydrogenated fats that are added to other kinds of peanut butter.
While the guidelines called for more carbs in the form of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, what the average American understood was that carbs — any kind of carbs — were good (even refined carbohydrates!) and all fat was bad. The food industry pounced and high-carb, low-fat foods became the norm. Grocery store shelves and refrigerators were soon lined with low- and no-fat items that were packed with sugar to help enhance the flavor. Not coincidentally, both a sugar addiction as well as an obesity epidemic in America began soon after low-fat diets became the standard recommendation.
Besides the healthy fats, dark chocolate comes packed with antioxidants, principally polyphenols including flavonoids such as epicatechin, catechin and notably the procyanidins, which can help fight off free-radicals and improve blood flow to the brain (which might make you smarter!). A recent study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology found that a few ounces of dark chocolate a day is all you need to reap the benefits.
Some tips for recognizing real EVOO are to beware of any brand that costs less than $10 a liter, look for a seal from the International Olive Oil Council and check the harvesting date on the label. Additionally, if it’s labeled as “light,” “pure” or a “blend,” it isn’t virgin-quality. And finally, opt for dark bottles, as they protect the oil from oxidation.
Dr. Michael and Dr. Mary Eades in their book Good Calories, Bad Calories write about the role that saturated fats found in butter and coconut oil play in immune health stating that the “loss of sufficient saturated fatty acids in the white blood cells hampers their ability to recognize and destroy foreign invaders, such as viruses, bacteria, and fungi”.
For decades, doctors, nutritionists, and health authorities have told us that a diet high in saturated fats raises blood cholesterol and increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. However, recent studies have made headlines by casting doubt on those claims, concluding that people who eat lots of saturated fat do not experience more cardiovascular disease than those who eat less.
Get more avocados in your diet by trying one of these avocado recipes. Alternatively, use it to cook with by adding avocado oil to your kitchen pantry. It has a mild taste that won’t overpower dishes the way other oils might and also has a high smoke point, which means it works well for grilling or frying. And because it remains a liquid at room temperature, it’s a tasty choice to drizzle on salads, sandwiches or veggies.