Polyunsaturated Fat vs. Monounsaturated Fat: What's the Difference?

Both are "good" fats, but they're not the same

If you're someone who watches what you eat, you know that unsaturated fats (like olive oil) are healthier than saturated fats (like butter). But it's also important to know that unsaturated fats come in two types: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Although they differ slightly, including both types in your diet can help improve your heart health and blood cholesterol levels.

This article discusses the two types of unsaturated fats, including why they’re good for you, what foods have them, and how they differ from saturated fats.

Various cooking oils in glass bottles
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What Are Unsaturated Fats?

Unsaturated fats are considered healthy fats. Research has found that including them in your diet can improve cholesterol, decrease inflammation, and stabilize heart rhythms.

These fatty acids are made of carbon atom chains that contain one or more double bonds, which reduces the amount of hydrogen atoms attached to the chain. Because of their structure, they’re usually liquid at room temperature.

In contrast, saturated fats are “saturated” with hydrogen atoms, meaning they have the maximum amount of hydrogen surrounding the carbon atoms. Saturated fats are typically solid at room temperature.

Saturated fats have long been thought to increase your risk of cardiovascular disease because they increase bad cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein, or LDL). However, research is showing that the link between saturated fat and cardiovascular disease may not be as clear as once thought. Conflicting research findings leave us with insufficient evidence that saturated fat by itself increases the risk of heart disease.

While research is still ongoing, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends eating foods with unsaturated fat instead of saturated fat when possible. That’s because research has found that replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats can decrease the risk of heart disease. In contrast, replacing saturated fat with carbohydrates did not show the same reduction in heart disease risk, and in some cases made it worse.

According to the AHA, both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats can lower rates of cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality. These fats also help to decrease bad cholesterol and triglyceride levels, both of which contribute to heart disease.

Monounsaturated Fats

Monounsaturated fats have only one carbon-to-carbon double bond in their molecular structure. They help lower bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and help in maintaining the overall health of cells. 

Several healthy foods contain monounsaturated fats, including:

  • Cooking oils, such as olive oil, sesame oil, and canola oil
  • Peanut butter
  • Nuts, including peanuts and cashews
  • Avocados
  • Olives
  • Sesame seeds
  • Healthy spreads labeled “high oleic

Polyunsaturated Fats

Polyunsaturated fats have more than one double bond in their carbon structure. Much like monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats can also help lower unhealthy LDL cholesterol. 

Polyunsaturated fats are essential for your body’s functions and play a role in building cell membranes and blood clotting. Your body can’t make polyunsaturated fats, so you have to get them from food.

There are two main types of polyunsaturated fats: omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Your body needs both of these for brain function and cell growth.

Foods high in polyunsaturated fats include:

  • Seeds, including sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds
  • Cooking oils, including corn oil, safflower oil
  • Nuts, such as pine nuts

Polyunsaturated vs. Monounsaturated

The difference between polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats can be found at the molecular level. Monounsaturated fats have a single double chemical bond, and polyunsaturated fats have anywhere from two to six double bonds.

Omega-3 Fats

Omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat, have been extensively studied regarding their effects on heart health.

Research shows omega-3 fats can lower triglyceride levels and slightly increase HDL (good cholesterol) levels. A 2016 study found eating fish high in omega-3 fatty acids at least twice a week significantly decreases blood triglyceride levels.

Omega-3 fats in fish have also been found to lower your risk of abnormal heart rhythms, which can lead to sudden death.

The following foods contain this specific type of polyunsaturated fat:

  • Fatty fish, including salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, and tuna
  • Seeds, including flaxseed and chia seeds
  • Walnuts
  • Algae (e.g., seaweed, spirulina, nori)

The American Heart Association recommends eating at least two 3.5-ounce servings of non-fried fish every week to get the benefits of omega-3 fats.

Summary

Both monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats have heart-healthy benefits, including decreasing inflammation and improving cholesterol. They’ve been found to decrease cardiovascular disease when they replace saturated fat in your diet.

A Word From Verywell

You may tend to think of fats as being bad for you. However, your body needs some of the fat that we get from food, particularly healthy fats like unsaturated fats. While the jury is still out on saturated fats, most doctors still recommend replacing them with unsaturated fats when possible.

Your physician or dietitian can help answer your questions about the types of fats to include in your diet.

7 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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By Jennifer Moll, PharmD
Jennifer Moll, MS, PharmD, is a pharmacist actively involved in educating patients about the importance of heart disease prevention.