Fats and Oils: PUFA, MUFA, and Saturated

March 20, 2023

We’ve been told for years that fat is the enemy, to minimize it at all costs, and that if we want to be healthy or lose weight, we need to eat less fat. But what if I were to tell you that fat is actually your friend? That fat is not only good for you but essential for health and nutrition.

Here’s why you should be eating 25-30% of your energy as fat.

The Benefits of Fat

Fat Keeps You Full

One of the main reasons why people avoid eating fat is because they think it will make them gain weight. But the truth is, fat is satiating. This means that it helps you feel full and satisfied after eating a meal. So, if you’re looking to lose weight, you should actually be eating a diet balanced with fat, as it will help you feel fuller for longer and prevent you from overeating.

Fat Gives You Energy

Another common misconception about fat is that it makes you sluggish. But the opposite is actually true. Fat provides your body with sustained energy. When you eat an unbalanced meal that is high in simple carbohydrates, your blood sugar spikes and then crashes soon after. This leaves you feeling tired and hungry shortly after eating. On the other hand, when you eat a meal that contains healthy fats, your blood sugar stays stable and you experience sustained energy throughout the day.

Fat Supports Your Brain

Fat is essential for brain health. After all, our brains are composed mainly of fat. Including enough fat improves brain development, supports neuroregeneration, lowers brain inflammation, and improves mood.

Other benefits of consuming a diet balanced with healthy fat includes, insulation for the body and keeping us warm, protects our organs, maintains healthy cholesterol levels, improves sleep quality, and to save the best for last, leaves our skin feeling more hydrated and supple (want that dewy skin care secret: eat your fats!). Fat is also necessary for the absorption of all fat soluble vitamins and minerals. So as you can see, fat plays several roles in the body and is essential for overall health. 

What’s a Smoke Point? And Why You Should Care

The smoke point is the point where your kitchen will start to fill up with smoke if cooked any degree higher. For example, clarified butter or ghee has a smoke point of about 485° Fahrenheit, making it an ideal fat for high heat cooking. Generally oils and fats that have a smoke point above 380° F are a better option for cooking at higher temperatures. Whereas, olive oil, for example, has a smoke point of about 350° F or lower, making it better suited for low/medium cooking or drizzled on top as a dressing. 

Types of Fats

MUFA’s

MUFA or monounsaturated fatty acids, is one of two types of unsaturated fats. MUFA’s are known as unsaturated fatty acids because they have one (mono) double bond in their carbon backbone. This double bond prevents them from being completely saturated by hydrogen, hence why they are deemed an unsaturated fatty acid. It is also liquid at room temperature. High MUFA containing oils include: avocado oil, olive oil, sunflower, almond, safflower, and sesame. 

PUFA’s

PUFA’s or polyunsaturated fatty acids are another type of fat found mainly in vegetables, nuts, seeds and fish. They are known as PUFA’s because they contain more than (poly) one double bond in their carbon backbone. PUFA’s are divided into two main types, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in: cold water fish, shellfish, chia seeds, walnuts, hemp seeds, and avocados. While high omega-6 containing foods and oils include: soybean, corn, cottonseed, sunflower, peanut, sesame.

Saturated Fats

Saturated fats are a type of fat found in all animal fat and some plants. They’re called “saturated” fats because the carbon backbone in the fatty acid chain is completely saturated with hydrogen molecules. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature (think: butter, coconut oil, lard, tallow) and are more stable than other types of fat. This makes them better protected from oxygen and less likely to go rancid. Grass fed sources of animal fats (and meat) are superior as they contain a greater source of omega 3’s (from grass consumption) and less omega-6’s (from consuming grains like corn). 

The Problem With Omega-6’s

A standard American diet tends to consume a higher amount of omega-6 and not enough omega-3. Evolutionarily speaking, humans throughout history have generally consumed a ratio of 1:1 between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. However, in the early 20th century modern day oil extraction methods were introduced leaving grocery stores stocked with highly processed omega-6 rich oils such as corn, vegetable and soybean. This turn of events in conjunction with the recent decades-long demonization of saturated fat (butter, tallow, coconut oil), have caused the usage of omega-6 fatty acids to skyrocket.

So what does this mean? Well basically it is predicted that the average American consumes a ratio of about 20:1 omega-6 to omega-3! That is a great deal more than the 1:1 ratio our body’s have been evolutionarily primed to consume. As one can imagine, this imbalance causes major inflammation in the body leading to health complications such as heart disease, stroke, arthritis, IBS, blood clots and cancer.  Not to mention most vegetable and seed oils go through excessive processing to extract their oils and make them more shelf stable. These methods consist of using extremely high heat, chemical solvents, deodorizing and bleaching. These overly processed oils become highly oxidized (rancid) due to the dangerously high temperatures used as well as the removal of its natural antioxidants that leave the oil even more susceptible to oxidation. 

What You Can Do

Knowledge is truly power, especially when it comes to health, so now that you are more aware, you have the power to make more conscious decisions in the future. Start by limiting high omega-6 fats and incorporating more omega-3 rich foods such as wild fish, chia seeds and hemp seeds. There are also extra virgin oils available that are unrefined, contain all of its health promoting antioxidants and generally taste much better. Additionally, looking for oils that are expeller pressed or cold-pressed ensures that you are avoiding oils that have been subjected to these dangerously high temperatures.

Conclusion on fats

Don’t be afraid of fat! It’s time to break the stigma and embrace this essential nutrient. Fat keeps you full, provides sustained energy, and supports your overall health. More importantly, now that you are in the know, you can make better choices when consuming fats. Choosing omega-3’s, eating grass-fed, cooking at the right temperatures and running far, far away from any highly processed fat or oil. 


Alma Ervedosa is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), specializing in nutrition counseling. Alma believes in a functional, whole person approach to nutrition counseling. See Alma’s full bio to learn more.

Resources 

https://www.webmd.com/diet/what-are-monounsaturated-fats

https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/fats-and-cholesterol/types-of-fat/

https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/are-vegetable-and-seed-oils-bad#bottom-line

https://branchbasics.com/blogs/food/how-to-navigate-cooking-oils-at-home-in-restaurants

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