The benefits of fat-free diets have been debunked – recent research has revealed that when it comes to maintaining health, the type of fat consumed is much more impactful than the amount of fat. As many of you know, the nutritionist-backed Mediterranean Diet includes many foods with high levels of unsaturated fats, like nuts, fish, and extra virgin olive oil. So, what are unsaturated fats and what is it that makes them such an important part of a healthy diet?
Scientifically, 'unsaturated' fats refer to fatty acid chains that contain at least one double bond in their structure. When a fatty acid contains a double bond, it is less stable, and more difficult for the body to absorb and store as fat. This promotes health because these fats take longer to digest, allowing your body to absorb more of the other nutrients.
The double bond is also responsible for keeping unsaturated fats liquid at room temperature. Saturated fats have no double bonds, and their connecting bonds are smooth, keeping them solid at room temperature.
Depending on how many double bonds they contain, unsaturated fats are classified as either monounsaturated (one double bond) or polyunsaturated (more than one double bond). While both are good for us, this difference in molecule structure means slightly different health benefits.
Monounsaturated Fats (MUFAs)
Monounsaturated fats are a type of fatty acid that have one unsaturated carbon bond in the molecule. They are typically liquid at room temperature, in the form of oils like extra virgin olive oil. But nuts and high fatty fruits like olives and avocados are also high in monounsaturated fats. It is these monounsaturated fats that are central to the Mediterranean lifestyle. Studies have shown that monounsaturated fats can increase the fluidity and elasticity of the cell membranes. And, at an average of 75% MUFA content, extra virgin olive oil is a great source. The fatty acids in 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil per day can reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, atherosclerosis and colon cancer, as well as reduce inflammation and improve cholesterol levels. Oleic Acid, specifically, is known as the primary MUFA in extra virgin olive oil that provides these health benefits.
Polyunsaturated Fats (PUFAs)
A lot of attention is also given to polyunsaturated fats. Chemically speaking, these fats simply have two or more of the carbon double bonds that classify them as unsaturated. These fats are further broken down into classifications of Omega-3 and Omega-6. Omega-3 is especially important to pay attention to, since the body cannot produce it on its own, and since they are strong protectors against heart disease. Extra virgin olive oil contains, on average, 15% PUFA’s, with most being linoleic acid.
Eating More Healthy Fat
In general, aim for about 25% of your total caloric intake to come from unsaturated fats. Additionally, the FDA recommends 10% to come from polyunsaturated fats, and specifically linoleic acid, the PUFA that is found in extra virgin olive oil!
Ready for more good news? Cooking with more unsaturated fats can make your food more delicious! You do not need to give up flavor when swapping out saturated fats for unsaturated. Making extra virgin olive oil-based salad dressings and dips are easy ways to consume more unsaturated fats, as well as incorporating nuts into your breakfast and afternoon snack. In need of more ideas? Check out our Recipe Page and subscribe to the California Olive Ranch newsletter for monthly recipes.