For 40 years, medical experts have been telling us that fat in a dietary evil. Cholesterol is the most undoubtedly demonized nutritional substance, but the fats come in second place. But the fervor over fat is not appropriate for the monounsaturated fatty acids. Here are the basics of what you need to know.
- Fats are hydrocarbons.
- Fats are classified in terms of saturation.
- Monounsaturated fatty acids are found in many plant oils.
- Monounsaturated fatty acids are essential to human life.
- Plant sources of monounsaturated fatty acids are healthier in the diet, but not for the reason you might think. There's nothing inherently unhealthy about monounsaturated fatty acids in animal fat. Fat in food doesn't necessarily wind up as fat in the bloodstream.
Every kind of fat is a chemical combination of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Even the "bad" fats can be used for energy, and various kinds of fat are essential -you've probably noticed the term "essential" used to describe omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids-to health.
If you could look through an extraordinarily powerful electron microscope at a single molecule of fat, you would see a chain of carbon atoms attached to each other and branching off to attach themselves to oxygen and hydrogen. Every carbon atom can share one electron with a neighboring carbon atom, or two, through a single bond, or a double bond.
When all the carbon bonds are one shared electron, or single bonds, the fatty acid is said to be saturated. When at least one of the bonds between carbon atoms is made by two shared electrons, or a double bond, the fatty acid is said to be unsaturated.
A monounsaturated fatty acid has just one double bond between carbon atoms. Polyunsaturated fatty acids have multiple double bonds.
Monounsaturated fatty acids foods include olive oil, sesame seed oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, peanut oil, and avocado oil, but they don't make up 100% of the oil. Olive oil, for example, is about 75% monounsaturated fat, and corn oil is a little less than 60% monounsaturated fat. There are also smaller amounts of monounsaturated fatty acids in meat.
It's easy to forget that blood is mostly water. The contents of cells would simply melt away if cells weren't coated with a membrane, a kind of "rain coat," that is about 50% monounsaturated fat. It would not be possible to absorb vitamins A, D, E, or K, or calcium from food with monounsaturated fat, and monounsaturated fat is a great energy source.
In the modern world, however, livestock are shot up with antibiotics and fed feed that can be contaminated with petroleum byproducts and heavy metals. The toxins in the animal feed wind up in the fat. Even animals that are grass-fed consume dioxins left on plants by acid rain.
So what is the answer?
You should only eat the "cleanest" animal product you can afford. Organic or grass-fed or free-range meats are better, but it doesn't do any good to spend your whole food budget on meat.
You can also eat a vegan diet with appropriate fatty acid and vitamin supplements. Just be sure to get less of the omega-6 essential fatty acids (which, though essential, are usually consumed in excess) and enough of the omega-3's, from fish oil or vegan sources. (See also Vegetarian Fatty Acids)