The Difference Between Saturated and Unsaturated Fats

Saturated fats and unsaturated fats are found in a variety of foods. Figuring out which types of fats you should consume, especially if you're trying to lower the amounts of lipids in your diet, can be confusing.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that between 20 and 35% of your total daily calories should consist of fat. Most of this intake should be from unsaturated fat. However, studies suggest that consuming only unsaturated fats may not be as heart-healthy, and consuming saturated fats may not be as dangerous as once thought.

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Here's a snapshot of specific foods that are rich in each kind of fat. Keep reading to learn more about both and how they affect your diet and your health.

What Is Saturated Fat?

Saturated fats have no double bonds in their chemical structure. They are saturated with hydrogen atoms. Because of their chemical structure, they have a solid consistency at room temperature.

Saturated fats can be found in a variety of foods, including:

  • Animal meat including beef, poultry, pork
  • Certain plant oils such as palm kernel or coconut oil
  • Dairy products including cheese, butter, and milk
  • Processed meats including bologna, sausages, hot dogs, and bacon
  • Pre-packaged snacks including crackers, chips, cookies, and pastries

Why Limit Saturated Fats in Your Diet

The AHA recommends that less than 5% to 6% of your daily caloric intake consist of saturated fat.

Some studies have shown that consuming a high amount of saturated fats may increase your low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and, therefore, your risk of heart disease. However, there have been multiple studies that refute the detrimental effects of saturated fat.

Although the amount of LDL in your body appears to be increased by consuming saturated fats, studies have shown that the type of LDL that is increased is actually the large, buoyant LDL. Larger LDL particles do not appear to increase your risk of heart disease.

In contrast, small, dense LDL—the type that has been shown to promote the formation of atherosclerosis—doesn't appear to be affected. In a few cases, the risk was even reduced with saturated fat consumption.

Some studies also suggest that the type of saturated fat-containing foods can make a difference in your heart health. One large study suggested that consuming dairy products may actually lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. At the same time, including processed meats in your diet could increase your risk of cardiovascular disease.

Based on available evidence, experts disagree on how important it is to limit saturated fats in your diet. The AHA recommends limiting dietary saturated fats. Fats from dairy products are considered a safe choice. And all experts agree that processed meats should be avoided.

What Is Unsaturated Fat?

Unsaturated fats are typically liquid at room temperature. They differ from saturated fats in that their chemical structure contains one or more double bonds.

They can be further categorized as:

  • Monounsaturated fats: This type of unsaturated fat contains only one double bond in its structure. Monounsaturated fats are typically liquid at room temperature and include canola oil and olive oil.
  • Polyunsaturated fats: This type of unsaturated fat contains two or more double bonds in their structure. They are liquid at room temperature. Polyunsaturated fats include safflower oil, sunflower oil, and corn oil.

Incorporating Unsaturated Fats in Your Diet

The AHA recommends that most of your daily fat intake should come from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.

Foods containing unsaturated fats include:

  • Nuts
  • Plant oils such as canola, vegetable, or plant oil
  • Certain fish like salmon, tuna, and anchovy, which contain omega-3 unsaturated fatty acids
  • Olives
  • Avocados

The Difference Between Fat and Cholesterol

Cholesterol and fats are both lipids and they are found in the food you eat and circulating in your bloodstream. Cholesterol has a more complex chemical structure when compared to fats.

In the body, cholesterol is bound to protein as low-density lipoprotein (LDL) which is considered to increase heart health risks, and high-density lipoprotein (HDL), which is called good cholesterol because it is considered healthy.

The amount of unsaturated and saturated fat in your diet can influence your total cholesterol, HDL, and LDL levels. While saturated fat, the kind found in beef, butter, and margarine, can raise your LDL levels, the kind of LDL (large LDL particles) may not increase your cardiovascular risk. Your best bet might be to moderate the saturated fats in your diet and to avoid the specific foods known to increase risk, particularly processed meats.

Fats in a Lipid-Lowering Diet

If you are watching your cholesterol and triglyceride levels, try to include a variety of healthy foods like lean meats, vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains.

More research is needed to understand the influence of unsaturated and saturated fats on cardiovascular disease. Although there has been research suggesting that saturated fats are not as bad for heart health as once thought, the current recommendations remain in place.

Both unsaturated fat and saturated fat add calories to your meal and weight to your waistline if you consume too much of either one, so it is best to eat them in moderation.

Additionally, the type of fat-containing foods you consume can make a difference in your lipid levels. A handful of walnuts or a lean piece of beef is a better choice for your meals in comparison to a bag of chips or sausage links. Both may contain fats, but the former choices also contain vitamins, minerals, and other healthy nutrients.

The latter choices may be higher in sugar, chemical preservatives, salt, and trans fats. All of these can have an adverse effect on your lipid levels and heart health.

A Word From Verywell

It can get confusing to untangle which fats you should consume and which you should avoid as newer research changes what you may have heard before. The AHA continues to weigh the research and make recommendations aimed at reducing your health risks.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why do we need to eat foods with fat?

    Dietary fats are important for your body to stay healthy. They provide energy, protect your organs, maintain cell growth, stabilize blood pressure, and help your body absorb certain nutrients.

  • What are the benefits of unsaturated fats?

    Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats reduce harmful LDL cholesterol levels and provide nutrients that your body needs to develop and maintain your cells. Polyunsaturated fats also provide omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids that are essential for a number of functions in your body.

  • What are trans fats?

    Trans fat is a type of dietary fat that can increase your risk of heart disease. It can be found in small amounts in animal foods, such as red meat or dairy. Most trans fats are artificial and found in processed foods, fried food, and commercial baked goods.

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12 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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