The Difference between Saturated and Unsaturated Fats
Saturated fats and unsaturated fats are found in a variety of foods. The type of fat you 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 25 percent and 35 percent of your total daily calories should consist of fat. Most of this intake should be from unsaturated fat. However, studies suggest that unsaturated fats alone may not be as heart-healthy, and consuming saturated fats may not be as dangerous as once thought.
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 percent to 6 percent of your daily caloric intake consist of saturated fat.2
Some studies have shown that consuming a high amount of saturated fats may increase your 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 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 in studies—appears not to be affected. In a few cases, the risk was even reduced with saturated fat consumption.3
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.4 At the same time, including processed meats in your diet could increase your risk of cardiovascular disease.
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:2
- 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:2
- Plant oils such as canola, vegetable, or plant oil
- Certain fish like salmon, tuna, and anchovy, which contain omega-3 unsaturated fatty acids
The Difference Between Fat and Cholesterol
Cholesterol and fats are both lipids and they are found both 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 be the “bad cholesterol,” for heart health risks, and high-density lipoprotein (HDL), which is called the “good cholesterol.”5
The amount of unsaturated and saturated fat in your diet can influence your levels of total cholesterol, HDL, and LDL. Saturated fat, the kind found in beef, butter, and margarine, was thought to raise the “bad cholesterol” LDL levels.
Fats to Include in Your 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 surrounding 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 still remain in place.6
Both unsaturated fat and saturated fat are equally energy-dense. These can 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, and all of these can have an adverse effect on your lipid levels and heart health.
It can get confusing as to which fats are considered worse for health risks 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.
- Vafeiadou K, Weech M, Altowaijri H, et al. Replacement of Saturated With Unsaturated Fats Had No Impact on Vascular 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
- American Heart Association. The Skinny on Fats. Updated Apr 30, 2017.
- 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
- 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
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015.
- 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