What’s a MUFA? The Fitness Nerd explains what this funny acronym means and why MUFAs are suddenly the rage among dieters.
Dear Fitness Nerd:
What are MUFAs? I keep hearing people talk about them, but I still haven’t quite figured out what they are. I know they are a type of fat, but I thought fats were unhealthy and should be avoided. Are they a supplement of some type like CLA? – Kayla R, (West Hollywood, CA)
MUFAs are an acronym for a “monounsaturated fatty acids” — a class of healthy fats found in foods like nuts and seeds, avocados, olives and certain vegetable oils. MUFAs are not typically taken as a supplement (as Conjugated linoleic acid or CLA often is), since they are plentiful in foods.
MUFAs have gotten a lot of attention recently for three reasons:
1. MUFAs may help you lose weight.
There is some evidence that people who regularly consume MUFAs have lower body fat levels and are more successful at dropping body fat and weight than people who are on low-fat, carbohydrate rich diets.
This research flies in the face of the conventional-wisdom that drove the low-fat craze of the 80s and 90s, which advised people to reduce their fat consumption as much as possible in order to lose weight, lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of stroke, high-blood pressure and heart disease. The latest research actually suggests that diets which are higher in healthy fats like MUFAs may be more effective at weight-control than low-fat diets.
2. MUFAs may reduce the risk of disease.
A growing body of research shows that MUFAs may not only help people lose fat, but that they also have protective properties that may lower the risk of developing certain diseases, including Type II Diabetes, heart disease, stroke and possibly certain types of cancers. MUFAs are also part of The Portfolio Diet, which is an approach to eating that combines MUFAs with other cholesterol-lowering foods like soy, plant sterols and soluble fiber from things like oatmeal and may reduce blood cholesterol-levels as effectively as prescription statin drugs.
3. The “MUFA” Diet
MUFAs play a central role in the popular “Flat Belly Diet” (also known as the ”MUFA Diet”) which promises to reduce belly fat (and flatten your abs) through diet alone.
The mantra of the Flat Belly Diet is “A MUFA at every meal.” The Flat Belly Diet uses a list of five MUFA rich foods and recommends that you try to include at least one of these MUFAs into each of your four daily meals. Without getting into the particulars of the Flat Belly Diet or whether it is effective here, this diet has focused attention on MUFAs by their inclusion.
MUFA Foods List
So what exactly are the foods that contain high-levels of MUFAs? They include:
- Nuts like almonds, walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts/filberts, Brazil nuts, pistachios, Macadamia nuts
- Peanut Butter
- Almond Butter
- Soy Nut Butter
- Soy Nuts/Soy Beans
- Avocado Oil
- Olive Oil
- Sunflower Seeds
- Sunflower Oil
- Canola Oil
- Sesame Seeds
- Sesame Seed Oil
- Tea Seed Oil/Tea Oil
How Much MUFA Should You Eat?
There are no recommended guidelines for how much monounsaturated fat you should eat daily, only guidelines around total fat as a percentage of your daily calories. The USDA recommends that people keep saturated fat consumption to a minimum, preferably under 20 grams. However, the UDSA does not have an official recommendation around how much polyunsaturated (PUFAs) or MUFAs to consume.
Potential Health Risks of MUFAs
Overall, the benefits of MUFA consumption seem to outweigh the risks. However, there may be some health risks associated with moderate to high consumption of MUFAs, although much of the research is conflicting.
First, there is some clinical research that shows monounsaturated fats may contribute to insulin resistance in a similar fashion to saturated fats. However, a large-scale study published in the March 2001 edition of the journal Diabetologia found that MUFAs had no impact on insulin resistance, and indeed, those subjects eating the high-MUFA diets saw a reduction in LDL cholesterol (the “bad” form of cholesterol.)
Another study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found a correlation between breast cancer in post-menopausal women and high MUFA and oleic acid consumption.
However, even the study’s authors warn against concluding that the MUFAs alone are the cause of this increased risk of breast cancer. The studies authors points out that the risk might actually be the result of not balancing the MUFAs with PUFAs (polyunsaturated fatty acids) in the form of Linolenic acid. They also hypothesize that other dietary or hormonal factors may be at the root of this increase.
MUFA Foods: Smart, But Not A Silver Bullet
At the end of the day, MUFA consumption should follow the same guidelines that we always use when discussing diet and nutrition: eat clean, consume a variety of foods and choose a combination of MUFAs and PUFAs for the best overall health benefits. There are no “magic diet” foods, even though some foods may have health and fat-loss advantages.
That said, including more MUFAs in your diet can help you feel more satisfied after eating (which is one of the reasons the Flat Belly Diet includes them at each meal) and foods that are high in MUFAs also tend to be high in other healthy compounds and nutrients like antioxidants, Omega 3 fatty acids and vitamins and minerals. So while there is no guarantee they will help you lose weight, they are certainly part of a healthy diet.
One final thing to consider: MUFAs are fats, and thus are calorie-dense compared to other macro-nutrients like carbohydrates and protein. So you’ll want to monitor how your body responds to MUFAs in terms of weight gain. It’s very easy to consume hundreds of calories in fats by eating a very small overall volume of food. Some people have no issues with the extra calories from dietary fats, while others can experience fat gain.
Remember, at the end of the day, it’s the amount of calories you eat that ultimately results in fat gain or loss.
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