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We need fat in our diet. Fat gives us energy, facilitates the absorption of nutrients, helps keep us warm, and provides essential fatty acids. But there are good fats and bad fats. The good come from monounsaturated fatty acids, known by the acronym MUFA, and polyunsaturated fats, or PUFA.
The renowned Mediterranean diet, which is a research-verified heart-healthy diet, is largely a MUFA diet. It recommends a higher consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and whole grains. It’s rich in healthy oils, and herbs and spices replace butter and salt as seasoning. The Mediterranean diet is associated with a lower risk of dementia and cancer.
The web site GetHealthyU promotes MUFAs as a way to lose weight and help reduce belly fat. According to GetHealthyU, “MUFAs are a healthy type of fat. They target stubborn belly fat by replacing the salty, fatty snacks in your diet and helping you feel full much longer. Simply put: Not all fats are created equal, and MUFAs are a type of fat that are not only healthy, but can help you lose weight.”
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Best Sources of MUFA
You can find monounsaturated fats in these foods:
- Dark chocolate
- Macadamia nuts
- Pumpkin seeds
- Sesame seeds
- Sunflower seeds
Of course, you still need to limit your total fat intake to 20 to 30 percent of your total calories; eating more monounsaturated fats is not an excuse to overeat. But in the right quantities, MUFA provides important health benefits.
Research has shown that monounsaturated fats are associated with vision health, cardiovascular health (by helping to promote good cholesterol levels), brain development, and nervous system health, along with lower mortality rates.
Brain development: In September 2017, the journal Neurolmage published a study from the University of Illinois that found monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA) are linked to general intelligence, and that this relationship is driven by the correlation between MUFA and the organization of the brain’s attention network. The study of 99 healthy older adults compared patterns of fatty acid nutrients found in blood samples, functional MRI data that measured the efficiency of brain networks, and results of a general intelligence test.
“Our ability to relate those beneficial cognitive effects to specific properties of brain networks is exciting,” study leader Aron Barbey, a professor of psychology, said. “This gives us evidence of the mechanisms by which nutrition affects intelligence and motivates promising new directions for future research in nutritional cognitive neuroscience.”
Mortality: A 2016 study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, as published in JAMA Internal Medicine, showed that consuming higher amounts of unsaturated fats is associated with lower mortality rates. The researchers found that higher consumption of saturated and trans fats is linked with higher mortality compared with the same number of calories from carbohydrates. This study provides further support (as published in the new 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans) emphasizing the types of fat rather than total amount of fat in the diet.
Coronary artery disease: An early study published in Circulation in 1999 found evidence that dietary monounsaturated fats are beneficial to people with coronary heart disease. “Compared with SFA (saturated fatty acids), MUFAs lower total and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, and relative to carbohydrate, they increase HDL (good) cholesterol levels and decrease plasma triglyceride levels,” the study stated.
In the 2011 study “Dietary Monounsaturated Fatty Acids are Protective Against Metabolic Syndrome and Cardiovascular Disease Risk Factors,” researchers concluded: “Due to existing and emerging research on health attributes of MUFA-rich diets and to the low prevalence of chronic disease in populations consuming MUFA rich Mediterranean diets, national dietary guidelines are increasingly recommending dietary MUFA, primarily at the expense of saturated fatty acids (SFA). Consumption of dietary MUFA promotes healthy blood lipid profiles, mediates blood pressure, improves insulin sensitivity and regulates glucose levels.
“Moreover,” according to the study’s authors, “provocative newer data suggest a role for preferential oxidation and metabolism of dietary MUFA, influencing body composition and ameliorating the risk of obesity. Mounting epidemiological and human clinical trial data continue to demonstrate the cardioprotective activity of the MUFA content of dietary fat. As the debate on the optimal fatty acid composition of the diet continues, the benefit of increasing MUFA intakes, particularly as a substitute for dietary SFA, deserves considerable attention.”