What Is Unsaturated Fat?
So there are basically 3 different main families of fat: “unsaturated fat” (healthy fat), “saturated fat” (recently determined to actually be ok in moderation, but still not great) and “trans fat” (mostly artificial fat, terrible for your heart and overall health). Since 2018 in America, it’s actually been illegal to produce food that contains added trans fat.
Unsaturated Fat Is a Liquid
Unsaturated fat (healthy fat) is distinctive in that it typically is in liquid (oil) form at room temperature. However, this oil can be permeated throughout plants and some types of animals’ fat stores.
Whereas saturated fat‘s molecules are more rigid and condensable, unsaturated fat‘s molecules are shaped in a way so that the molecules are less locked together with one another and can more easily “flow” past each other. As a result, unsaturated fat has a much lower melting point than saturated fat (which is solid at room temperature).
There Are Two Different Types of Unsaturated Fat
There are two different types of unsaturated fat: “monounsaturated fat” and “polyunsaturated fat“. I personally don’t pay much attention to distinguishing between the two because they both give very similar health benefits.
The takeaway is, if you look at a Nutrition Facts label and see a high amount of monounsaturated fat and/or polyunsaturated fat, then that is a good sign, especially if there is also a low amount of saturated fat.
Keep in mind that a lot of food companies don’t list the amounts of polyunsaturated fat and monosaturated fat because it is not required by law, whereas listing the amounts of unhealthy fat (saturated fat and trans fat) is required. You can get around this by subtracting the amount of saturated fat and trans fat (hopefully there isn’t any) from the total fat to determine how much unsaturated fat is in a product.
Total Fat – Saturated Fat – Trans Fat = Unsaturated Fat
Ok, so now we know what unsaturated fat is, but why should we care?
Health Benefits of Unsaturated Fat
Unsaturated Fat Can Protect Against Heart Attacks and Strokes
Just like there are different types of fat, there are also different types of cholesterol: “high-density lipoprotein (HDL)” is “good“ cholesterol and “low-density lipoprotein (LDL)” is “bad” cholesterol. LDL cholesterol is the type of cholesterol that can build up and become hardened plaque deposits on the sides of your arteries. “Triglycerides” are fatty lipids similar to LDL cholesterol that can also accumulate and harden along your arteries.
Eventually, the plaque on the edges of the artery can cause a full blockage so that your blood can’t pass through at all; this can be pretty f*cking bad, especially if it’s in or near your heart or brain.
So where does unsaturated fat come into this? Studies have shown that consuming more unsaturated fat, and less saturated fat, reduces the amount of LDL cholesterol and triglycerides in people’s blood, in turn reducing occurrences of heart attacks and strokes.
Unsaturated Fat Can Improve Your Mood & Mental Function
Various studies have shown that not consuming enough unsaturated fat can actually make people more irritable, depressed and hostile. Furthermore, omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil), a type of unsaturated fat, have been found to improve brain function in people with depression.
About 60-70% of the brain is made up of fat; it’s the fattiest organ in the body. Unsaturated fat, omega-3 fatty acids especially, are necessary to maintain your brain and can improve memory and learning. When people refer to “brain food“, they’re often talking about types of food that contain high amounts of unsaturated fat.
Unsaturated Fat Can Be Great for Losing Weight (Keto Diet)
In recent years, the Ketogenic Diet has gained quite a bit of attention as an efficacious way to lose weight while still being able to eat delicious meals.
So typically, most people eat fairly carb-heavy diets. Comparing the 3 macronutrients, the average person’s diet consists of 45-65% carbohydrates, 10-35% protein and 20-35% fat.
Carbohydrates are what your body burns first for energy. Carbs are quickly and easily accessible and burnt; like throwing a bunch of dry twigs and kindling together to quickly get a fire going. Carbs can give you a quick boost, but that doesn’t last for too long.
The premise of the Keto Diet is to replace carbohydrates with healthy fats until your body enters a state called “ketosis“. This is basically where your body is forced to burn fat for fuel rather than carbs (because there aren’t any carbs), kind of similar to a hibernating bear. At this point, you’re not adding any kindling (carbs) to the fire, you’re just slowly burning away the big logs (fat stores in the body).
Although cutting out carbs completely can cause “carb withdrawal” symptoms such as fatigue and headaches, it is an extremely effective way of losing weight.
Forcing your body to enter “ketosis” can be a good idea for some people (such as obese people), but is also quite drastic and controversial. However, you don’t need to go all out and entirely substitute out carbs to still enjoy the weight-loss benefits of giving unsaturated fat a larger ratio in your diet.
Other Benefits of Unsaturated Fat
Unsaturated fat has also been shown to lower blood pressure, reduce inflammation and increase absorption of certain fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E, and K).
As we’ve seen, focusing on increasing unsaturated fat consumption offers a range of different proven health benefits; it’s important that we consume enough of it.
So which types of food are full of unsaturated fat?
Excellent, Easy Sources of Unsaturated Fat
1) Avocados & Avocado Oil
Avocados are the fruit king of unsaturated fat. If its buttery, oily texture wasn’t enough to give it away, avocados are packed full of fat, over 75% of which is unsaturated fat.
In the last decade or two, avocados have experienced an explosion in popularity, parallel with the increasing trend of healthy eating.
Personally, I have an avocado at least once every second day in an avocado, banana, protein-powder smoothie after weightlifting. Or, I’ll have avocado slices on toast (whole-wheat bread) covered in peanut butter, which brings us to…
2) Peanut Butter & Peanut Butter Oil
Not only is peanut butter full of protein and an excellent meat alternative for weight loss, but natural peanut butter is also packed full of unsaturated fat. In fact, about 80% of the fat in peanut butter is unsaturated fat.
If you’re on the Keto Diet and want to completely avoid carbs, you can have a peanut butter, avocado smoothie, or just straight-up put peanut butter in the center of an avocado (where the stone was) and eat it like that.
Just be careful though, some peanut butter brands add extra unhealthy oils, sugar and salt. Generally speaking, the fewer ingredients a jar of peanut butter has in it, then the healthier it is.
3) Fish & Fish Oil
S.M.A.S.H. (Sardines, Mackerel, Anchovies, Salmon, Heron) are all types of fish that are high in omega-3 fatty acids (omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fat, which is unsaturated fat). Other types of fatty, oily fish such as trout and tuna also contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
Fish oil is generally made from oily types of fish and is therefore also high in omega-3 fatty acids. Regularly eating meals mixed with fish oil or served with fish oil will help you get omega-3 fatty acids into your diet.
In particular, many different Vietnamese dishes are mixed with fish oil (nước mắm); drizzling fish oil over rice, noodles or even into soup is quite common with Vietnamese cuisine. Also, seafood, bite-sized sections of meat and various types of Vietnamese rolls are often dipped into fish oil containing chili and garlic.
Omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids are necessary for the body and brain to function, however, the human body does not naturally produce omega 3 or omega 6 fatty acids on its own; we need to consume things to get these essential fatty acids. As the level of omega 3, 6 and 9 fatty acids is low in the typical Western diet, some people choose to take omega 3 or omega 3-6-9 supplements to enhance mood and brain function, as well as to improve heart health among other things.
4) Nuts & Nut Oils
Most types of nuts are an excellent source of unsaturated fat. In particular, almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, walnuts and pine nuts are quite high in unsaturated fat while at the same time fairly low in saturated fat.
I like to go to the market and buy a few different types of nuts that I mix together in a big plastic container. If I start to get hungry in the middle of the day (or if I’m still a bit hungry after a meal), I just munch on a couple of handfuls of nuts. Also, I look for cereals that have an array of nuts mixed in.
Just try to be careful to get raw or dry-roasted nuts rather than nuts cooked in oil. Also, nuts that are heavily salted are going to do more harm than good.
5) Olives & Olive Oil
Although it has a low smoking point and should not be used when cooking at high temperatures, olive oil is one of the healthiest oils to cook with (at low to medium temperatures). Also, olive oil can be drizzled over salads, vegetables, seafood or even pizza, as well as used in marinades or sauces. Or, you could just go all-out Mediterranean and dip your bread in olive oil and vinegar.
Olive oil has a slew of health benefits, many of them attributed to the fact that olive oil contains over 10 grams of unsaturated fat per tablespoon; that’s quite substantial.
Olive oil can be refined or unrefined. Like most types of food, olive oil that is unrefined and more natural is healthier than olive oil that has been refined. Natural, unrefined olive oil is called “Extra Virgin Olive Oil“, which many dietitians refer to as the healthiest cooking oil on Earth.
6) Edamame Beans
Although most beans consist of almost no fat, these actually contain a decent little reservoir of fat. More importantly, almost all of the fat in edamame beans is unsaturated fat, including some omega-3 fatty acids. In addition, edamame beans have a very low amount of carbs in relation to protein and fat.
You can eat edamame beans as a snack with cayenne pepper and soy sauce; just don’t go too heavy on the soy sauce as it’s quite high in sodium. Also, you can throw edamame beans in salads, pasta, rice or soup to add a bit more protein and unsaturated fat to your meal.
7) Eggs (in moderation)
Eggs are still controversial among nutritionists. For years, regularly eating eggs was seen as a big contributor to high cholesterol and heart disease. Recently, there’s been some evidence suggesting eggs aren’t as harmful as once thought.
Although eggs can raise your cholesterol substantially if you regularly eat multiple of them every day, an egg every once in a while has been shown to not cause a significant increase in LDL cholesterol in the same way that some types of food high in saturated fat and trans fat can cause. This may be due to the fact that eggs raise the levels of HDL cholesterol in your blood. HDL cholesterol is the good cholesterol that kind of “cleans up” the bad LDL cholesterol in your blood.
Various different sources seem to agree that eating up to 7 eggs a week will not cause any significant health detriment in most healthy people.
This is great, because egg yolks are very high in unsaturated fat. Eggs contain about twice as much unsaturated fat as they do saturated fat.
Eating omega-3 eggs can be a great way to get omega-3 fatty acids in your diet if you don’t often eat fish.
Also, keep in mind that poached or boiled eggs are healthier than fried eggs.
Incorporating More Unsaturated Fat Into Your Diet
So we now know what unsaturated fat is, why it’s good for us and 7 easy sources of it.
It doesn’t require a monumental, life-changing diet-overhaul to increase unsaturated fat consumption and receive the accompanying health benefits. Little changes can make a difference.
For example, you could:
- Pick up some extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil or peanut oil for your kitchen.
- Cook and order different types of fatty, oily fish (not oily because it’s been deep-fried).
- Eat Vietnamese dishes that incorporate fish oil.
- Have a container of nuts that you can snack on when you feel hungry.
- Have an egg every day or two (I usually like to have a hard-boiled egg in my salad).
- Choose to buy omega-3 eggs or even omega 3-6-9 supplements.
- Throw some edemame beans into your meals, snack on them or look for them on menus.
- Have peanut butter and avocado toast or smoothies (with chia seeds for even more unsaturated fat).
- Check Nutrition Facts labels; you want products with low amounts of saturated fat and high amounts of monounsatured fat (a type of unsaturated fat) and/or polysaturated fat (the other type of unsaturated fat).
Implementing any number of these habits is likely to help you obtain the benefits associated with consuming more unsaturated fats; if you have any other ideas, then let’s hear them in the comments.
James | MosaicWriting.com