The Difference Between Saturated and Unsaturated Fats

Figuring out which types of fats you should consume can be confusing. This is especially true if you're trying to lower the amounts of fats (also called lipids) in your diet.

Lipids are a type of molecule that make up different structures in your body. They're essential for body function, but too much can put you at risk for several types of diseases.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that between 20% and 35% of your total daily calories should consist of fat. There are two types: saturated and unsaturated. Most of your 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.

This article explains what saturated fat, unsaturated fat, and cholesterol are. It includes a snapshot of specific foods that are rich in each kind of fat and how they affect your diet and your health.

saturated and unsaturated fat food sources

Verywell

What Is Saturated Fat?

Saturated fats are called "saturated" because of their chemical structure. All fats are made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen molecules. Saturated fats are "saturated" with hydrogen atoms, which means they have the greatest number of hydrogen atoms possible and no double bonds in their chemical structure.

What does this chemical structure mean? For one, it means they become solid at room temperature.

Saturated fats can be found in a variety of foods:

  • 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 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), also known as "bad" cholesterol. High LDL levels may increase your risk of heart disease. However, there have been multiple studies that say saturated fat does not actually have a negative affect on your heart.

The more saturated fat you eat, the more LDL you seem to have in your body. However, studies have shown that not all LDL is bad. Saturated fat increases the amount of large, buoyant LDL you have. These larger LDL particles do not appear to increase your risk of heart disease.

On the other hand, small, dense LDL has been shown to contribute to atherosclerosis, the build-up of plaque on your arteries, which leads to heart disease. Eating saturated fat doesn't appear to be increase your small, dense LDL. In a few cases, the risk of plaque build-up even went down when saturated fat was consumed.

The type of saturated fat-containing foods you eat also seems to 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. Still, the AHA does recommend limiting it. 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 also 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 come from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.

Foods containing unsaturated fats include:

  • Nuts
  • Plant oils
  • Certain fish like salmon, tuna, and anchovies, which contain omega-3 unsaturated fatty acids
  • Olives
  • Avocados

Recap

While some people believe all saturated fat is bad, that’s not what the research shows. While eating foods such as processed meat does seem to increase your risk of heart disease, other foods high in saturated fats such as dairy products could lower your risk. 

Consuming mostly unsaturated fats is considered a good way to get the fats your body needs with less worry about your cholesterol or your risk of heart disease.

The Difference Between Fat and Cholesterol

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

In the body, cholesterol is bound to protein as low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or high-density lipoprotein (HDL). LDL may increase your risk of heart disease, while HDL, often called "good" cholesterol, is considered to be protective against heart problems.

Fats in a Lipid-Lowering Diet

If you are watching your cholesterol and triglyceride levels (another type of fat that circulates in the blood), 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 they were once thought, doctors still usually recommend limiting your intake.

Both unsaturated fat and saturated fat add calories to your meal and weight to your waistline if you consume too much. Practicing moderation is the best way to stay healthy.

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 chips and processed meat, meanwhile, may be higher in sugar, chemical preservatives, salt, and trans fats. All of these can have a negative effect on your lipid levels and heart health.

Summary

There’s a lot of disagreement about how much saturated fat is “safe” or “healthy.” Some types of saturated fat are associated with heart disease. Saturated fat found in beef, butter, margarine, and other rich foods may not increase your cardiovascular risk since they result in larger LDL. However, your best bet might be to limit the saturated fats in your diet anyway.

Instead, choose unsaturated fats as your main source of fats and lipids. This will help you avoid unhealthy sources of saturated fats, such as processed meats, that are known to increase the risk of health problems.

A Word From Verywell

It can be confusing to try and untangle which fats you should consume and which you should avoid, especially as newer research changes what you may have heard before. The AHA continues to evaluate the research and make recommendations aimed at reducing your health risks. The best course is to check with your doctor and continue to include food in your diet that are natural, unprocessed, high in nutrients, and lower in calories.

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.

Was this page helpful?
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.
  1. American Heart Association. The facts on fats: 50 years of American Heart Association dietary fats recommendations.

  2. Vafeiadou K, Weech M, Altowaijri H, et al. Replacement of saturated with unsaturated fats had no impact on avscular function but beneficial effects on lipid biomarkers, e-selectin, and blood pressure: Results from the randomized controlled Dietary Intervention and VAScular Function (DIVAS) study. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2015;102(1):40-8. doi:10.3945/ajcn.114.097089

  3. American Heart Association. The skinny on fats.

  4. Siri-Tarino PW, Sun Q, Hu FB, Krauss RM. Saturated fatty acids and risk of coronary heart disease: modulation by replacement nutrients. Curr Atheroscler Rep. 2010;12(6):384-90. doi:10.1007/s11883-010-0131-6

  5. Malhotra A, Redberg RF, Meier P. Saturated fat does not clog the arteries: coronary heart disease is a chronic inflammatory condition, the risk of which can be effectively reduced from healthy lifestyle interventions. Br J Sports Med. 2017;51(15):1111-1112. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2016-097285

  6. DiNicolantonio JJ, Lucan SC, O’Keefe JH. The evidence for saturated fat and for sugar related to coronary heart disease. Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases. 2016;58(5):464-72. doi:10.1016/j.pcad.2015.11.006

  7. de Oliveira OMC, Mozaffarian D, Kromhout D, et al. Dietary intake of saturated fat by food source and incident cardiovascular disease: The multi-ethnic study of atherosclerosis. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2012;96:397-404. doi:10.3945/ajcn.112.037770

  8. American Heart Association. HDL (good), LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides.

  9. De Souza RJ, Mente A, Maroleanu A, et al. Intake of saturated and trans-unsaturated fatty acids and risk of mortality, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes: Systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. BMJ. 2015;351:h3978. doi:10.1136/bmj.h3978

  10. Harvard Health Publishing. Know the facts about fats.

  11. American Heart Association. Fats.

  12. U.S. National Libary of Medicine. Facts about trans fats. MedlinePlus.