Monounsaturated Fat: Is It So “Good” Afterall?

Monounsaturated fats are regarded by most as ‘good fats’ and ‘heart-healthy’.  Meanwhile, saturated fats are demonised and labelled as ‘bad fats’ that should be avoided. 

Over the last century, our energy intake from fat has increased by around seven hundred calories per day, coinciding almost perfectly with our ever-growing obesity rates. 

While many point to olive oil as the magical ingredient in the Mediterranean diet, as you will see, the majority of this extra energy has come from palm, soybean, and sunflower oil, which are also primarily monounsaturated fat. 

Maybe it’s time to stop and consider if we might be getting too much of a ‘good thing’? 

In this article, we’ll look beyond the simplistic ‘good’ vs ‘bad’ labels to understand the relationship between monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, saturated fat, and other important factors like satiety and nutrient density

This article will give you a better understanding of how much of each fat you should consume to achieve your goals.

Monounsaturated Fat Consumption Over the Years 

The chart below shows the change in calories from varying types of fat over the past century.  We’ve also plotted the trend in US obesity, which closely tracked extra calories from fat.  

Most of this extra energy from fat comes from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, around three hundred extra calories each.  In contrast, saturated fat has increased by around one hundred calories per person.   

The following chart shows how the percentage of our total energy from polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat has risen steadily while saturated fat rose and then declined. 

Early last century, saturated fat was the dominant fat.  But after research in the 1950s linked saturated fats to heart disease and the 1960s Green Revolution industrialised our food production, monounsaturated fat took the lead. 

What Are Monounsaturated Fats? 

From a chemical standpoint, monounsaturated fats are fat molecules with one (mono) unsaturated carbon bond, known as a double bond.  

Saturated fats only contain saturated carbons or single-bonded carbon molecules, and polyunsaturates contain multiple double bonds. 

Oils that contain monounsaturated fats are typically liquid at room temperature but solidify when chilled.  In contrast, saturated fats are known for being solid at room temperature.

Why are Monounsaturated Fats Often Considered Good Fats? 

Since the 1930s, scientists have suspected dietary fat and cholesterol could cause atherosclerosis, heart disease, and stroke.  

Atherosclerotic plaques form blood clots, and narrowing arteries (atherosclerosis) contribute to heart disease.  These plaques consist of oxidised cholesterol.

Because saturated fat was solid at room temperature, it was thought that dietary saturated fat and cholesterol from animal-based foods were directly correlated to oxidised blood cholesterol and the hardening of your arteries. 

However, recent research has proven this to be an inaccurate oversimplification, and the relationship between dietary cholesterol and blood cholesterol seems to be a bit more complex.

First and foremost, you have bigger problems to contend with if your arteries are at room temperature; you’re already dead!  But, aside from this, cholesterol is an essential molecule necessary for human life. 

We need cholesterol to build human tissues and for cell membrane, bile acid, and hormone synthesis.  Whether consuming dietary cholesterol or not, your body makes around 85-90% of the cholesterol it needs.  The rest tends to be absorbed through the intestines from your food.

Instead of over simplistically blaming cholesterol, we might see more success if we turn our attention and begin to question why so much extra cholesterol is floating around the bloodstream. 

Oxidative stress has also been shown to impair cholesterol metabolism. New research has also linked it to gut imbalances, poor methylation (a result of nutrient deficiency), and environmental toxins in part from the food we eat.  

Interestingly, while saturated fat is officially still considered ‘bad’, dietary cholesterol was removed as a nutrient of concern in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines after finding that there was no link with heart disease

Interestingly, our satiety analysis shows that cholesterol and omega 3 are the two fats we appear to crave more of, or at least we consume less when we consume more of them per calorie. 

Similar to saturated fat, cholesterol has decreased in our food system as our food system has become more industrialised.   

For more detail, see Cholesterol: When to Worry and What to Do About It.  

Which Foods Are High in Monounsaturated Fat? 

The tables below list the proportion of energy from monounsaturated, saturated, and polyunsaturated fats for various popular foods and their relative nutrient density scores.

It’s worth noting that most whole foods contain a mixture of mono, poly, and saturated fats.   While low-fat and plant-based proponents tend to advocate for monounsaturated fat and low-carb and animal-based diets fans usually advocate for saturated fat, the reality is that all food contains a blend of all three fats in marginally variable amounts. 

Fats

foodmonosaturatedpolyscore
olive oil74%14%11%3%
avocado oil72%12%14%0%
almond butter48%6%20%32%
lard45%39%11%1%
beef tallow42%50%4%2%
cashews40%13%13%32%
peanut butter36%12%22%19%
fish oil29%20%40%0%
butter25%57%4%5%
cream cheese23%52%4%17%
mayonnaise22%15%59%6%

Plants 

foodmonosaturatedpolyscore
avocado55%12%10%31%
pecans53%8%28%20%
almond flour50%6%19%33%
almonds49%6%19%34%
peanuts39%13%23%34%
pistachio nuts37%9%23%34%
Brazil nuts33%22%33%30%
sesame seeds29%11%34%40%
hummus25%6%11%35%
flaxseeds13%6%48%39%
walnuts12%8%65%24%
natto10%7%26%58%

Animal

foodmonosaturatedpolyscore
bacon38%29%14%23%
pepperoni37%32%8%31%
liverwurst37%29%7%46%
salami37%27%7%22%
Braunschweig35%26%9%49%
liver pate35%27%9%41%
egg yolk33%27%12%49%
headcheese32%20%7%21%
duck eggs32%18%6%63%
ground beef31%27%2%41%
whole egg23%20%12%65%
ground chicken23%14%9%60%
Gruyere cheese22%41%4%46%
ham shank22%16%7%64%
roast beef22%19%2%59%
Brie22%47%2%44%
ground turkey21%16%16%59%
Edam cheese20%44%2%47%
blue cheese20%48%2%45%
Greek yogurt20%22%4%24%
provolone cheese19%44%2%46%
Swiss cheese18%42%3%46%
corned beef16%15%2%51%
Parmesan cheese15%33%3%44%
chicken heart14%16%16%65%
pork ribs14%12%5%62%
ground pork (lean)11%9%4%63%

Seafood

foodmonosaturatedpolyscore
herring21%12%12%66%
trout20%7%9%63%
anchovy16%9%11%74%
caviar16%14%25%68%
salmon11%6%8%66%

Nutrient Density vs Monounsaturated Fat 

To gain some insight into the nutrient density component, the chart below shows the relationship between nutrient density and monounsaturated fat.  Here, we can see that foods with more monounsaturated fat tend to contain fewer essential micronutrients per calorie. 

The micronutrient fingerprint chart below shows that foods with the most monounsaturated fat are low in most vitamins and minerals.    High-monounsaturated fat foods tend to be particularly low in vitamins C, K1, A, folate (B9), niacin (B3), thiamine (B1), magnesium, and potassium.

Aside from vitamin E, refined vegetable oils like canola, sunflower, and rapeseed that are commonly added as ingredients to processed foods contain negligible amounts of vitamins, minerals, and amino acids.  Even the form of vitamin E that is abundant in these oils usually isn’t optimal for the body. 

But is this any better or worse than other types of fat? 

The following chart shows the relationship between nutrient density, total fat, and each fat fraction.  We see that all fats have a similar relationship with nutrient density; regardless of the type of fat, a higher percentage of energy from fat aligns with a lower nutrient density. 

If you were to look at a snippet from Cronometer of a fat source—let’s say, olive oil—you would see there was little in the way of micronutrients like vitamins, minerals, and amino acids.   

How Much Monounsaturated Fat Aligns with Weight Loss? 

Next, we come to the topic you’re most interested in – satiety.  That is,

  • how different fats influence the quantity of the foods you eat, and
  • does one fat help you lose weight more than another?   

Unfortunately, the short answer is no.  There is no magical fat that you can eat more of to lose weight.  Keep reading to learn more. 

Monounsaturated fat vs Calorie Intake

The chart below shows the relationship between monounsaturated fat and calorie intake from our Optimiser data analysis.  Once we consume more than 10% monounsaturated fat, our overall calorie intake increases significantly. 

Saturated Fat vs Calorie Intake

The next chart shows the relationship between calorie intake and saturated fat.  While more saturated fat also aligns with a higher calorie intake, we see a peak in the relationship between satiety and saturated fat.  Once we consume more than 30% of our calories from saturated fat, we begin eating a little less. 

It’s not exactly clear why this occurs.  It may be because whole foods with a significant amount of saturated fat like cheese also contain protein.   

Another factor that may be at play is that saturated fat leads to insulin resistance quicker than unsaturated fat.  While this is typically considered ‘bad news’ for saturated fat, it’s helpful to remember that insulin resistance occurs when we exceed our Personal Fat Threshold.

When your fat cells are relatively empty, your appetite will increase, and you will be driven to seek more food.  However, once you approach your Personal Fat Threshold and become insulin resistant, your appetite will settle because you can’t store more energy as efficiently. 

To put it more simply, you become insulin resistant more quickly from overconsuming high saturated fat foods.  Hence, satiety kicks in at a lower body fat level.  Meanwhile, unsaturated fats will keep you eating and gaining much more weight before you develop Type-2 Diabetes

This does not necessarily mean one option is better than another; it’s just something to be aware of.  Overconsuming more energy than you use—from ANY source! —will result in weight gain.   You don’t want to overdo your intake of any fat to the point that you drive yourself to become diabetic, but saturated fat might slow down before you become morbidly obese!

Polyunsaturated Fat vs Calorie Intake

Finally, we also tend to eat more energy when our diet contains more polyunsaturated fat. 

Comparison

When we look at the satiety response to all three types of fat together, we see a somewhat similar response. 

  • Varying polyunsaturated fat doesn’t have a significant role because it’s a small part of the diet. 
  • Saturated fat aligns with a slightly higher calorie intake than monounsaturated fat between 20 and 30% but falls off once we get beyond this point. 

From this analysis, it’s hard to conclude that one fat is better than another.  But we see a clear signal when we look at fat as a whole. 

Reducing fat from 80 to 40% of calories aligns with a significant 28% reduction in energy intake!   Fat is an excellent slow-burning energy source.  However, because it is so energy dense, it is the easiest to ‘leverage’ to increase or reduce your overall energy intake to align with your goals. 

What is the Minimum Amount of Monounsaturated Fat? 

To help you understand the possible range for each fat, the table below shows:

  • The % intake of each type of fat in the US diet 1910 vs 2010, and
  • The 15th percentile, median and 85th percentile intake from our Optimiser data. 
1910201015thmedian85th
poly3.4%9.9%3.4%6.3%10.4%
mono11.9%17.3%8.8%15.7%24.0%
saturated13.2%13.3%8.7%16.5%26.1%
total fat30.9%41.9%35.3%45.8%61.7%

This data is also plotted in the chart below.  It’s worth noting that the US population’s polyunsaturated fat intake has nearly tripled.  Meanwhile, monounsaturated fat has increased by 50% over the past century while our health has deteriorated and obesity has risen. 

While not intended to be used as a hard and fast rule or even a guideline, the table below shows some suggested ranges. 

  • If your goal is to maximise nutrient density and satiety, your intake of each of the fats should be closer to the lower end of the range. 
  • However, if you are lean and active or on a lower carb diet, you might expect your intake to be closer to the upper end of this range. 
lowerupper
poly3.5%10%
mono10%25%
saturated9%25%
total fat30%60%

How Do I Find the Right Fat Intake for Me? 

Rather than prioritising or demonising fat, to find the right amount for you, you should:

  1. Ensure you are getting adequate protein,
  2. Dial in your carbohydrate intake to ensure healthy blood sugar variability (i.e., no more than 30 mg/dL or 1.6 mmol/L rise after meals), and finally
  3. Add energy from fat to support your activity or reduce your dietary fat if your goal is fat loss from your body. 

The nutrient density of your diet should be the highest priority rather than micro-managing saturated vs mono vs poly fats. 

We always find that if you demonise ‘bad’ components in food, nutrient density suffers, and you end up with non-sensical results.  For a recent example, see Is Tufts University Food Compass Nutrient Profiling System ‘Broken’?

However, if you’re getting plenty of nutrients from mainly whole foods, you won’t need to micromanage “good” vs “bad” fats.  Everything falls into place without too much or too little of anything you require. 

Which Fats Should You Avoid? 

If you’ve made it this far, you should hopefully be able to see that you probably don’t need to be afraid of any of the fats, so long as they come from mainly whole foods that contain other enough essential nutrients.  

The reality is, while we like to romanticise the ‘heart healthy’ Mediterranean, we’re not all getting an extra seven hundred calories per day from overeating too many avocadoes or walnuts or adding too much avocado oil or olive oil to our salads!  Right?    

In reality, vegetable oils palm, soybean, sunflower, and rapeseed have become super cheap, high-profit margin ingredients that manufacturers love adding to processed food.  The chart below shows that our intake of these oils has increased by more than 800% over the past half-century!  

So it’s a convenient ‘coincidence’ that the US Department of AGRICULTURE’s dietary guidelines gives them a blessing as ‘heart healthy’ while demonising the previously dominant saturated fat. 

Very few people are overdoing these refined oils by themselves.  But when combined with flour and sugar in ultra-processed food, unsaturated fats become a real problem!  The ingredients list for the Oreo cookie is a prime example, with palm or canola oil as a major ingredient, after flour and sugar!   

The Cronometer screenshot below shows the macro profile of 2000 calories of Oreo cookies, with a similar blend of carbs and fat and only 3% protein!

The micronutrient profile for 2000 calories of Oreo cookies shows that the nutrient density is terrible, even though most of the nutrients are from fortification!

The problem is that Oreo cookies are not unique.  This formula of industrial seed oils + sugar + flour + flavourings +colours + synthetic fortified vitamins is the signature of most packaged foods in the centre isles of our supermarkets and fast-food stores.  

If you value your health, you should worry less about which types of fats you are getting in your meat and nuts.  Instead, you should avoid these processed foods with industrial seed oils as an ingredient like your life depends on it (because it does). 

But the good news is that you won’t need to be concerned about “good fat” vs “bad fat” if you’re using nutrient density as the primary determinant of whether a food is ideal for you. 

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