Knowing Your Fats: The Difference Between Saturated and Unsaturated Fats

Difference Between Saturated and Unsaturated Fats

An appropriate diet is a key to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. For this, however, one has to know what to eat and what to avoid. The old adage is that low-fat diets are best for proper cardiovascular health and short-term weight loss. Well, this is not the case anymore. Indeed, nowadays, doctors, nurses, nutritionists, and exercise physiologists are recommending consuming fatty foods. 

And while dietary fat might still have a relatively bad reputation, fats are crucial for maintaining good health. They provide our bodies with energy and help us absorb vitamins and minerals. On the other hand, they are high in calories, and some types of fat might contribute to heart disease.

While it may appear contradictive, research on cholesterol and fatty acid types has shed a positive light on why some foods may be better than others when it comes to comparing fat. This article will compare the difference between saturated and unsaturated fats and list a few good and bad sources.

About Dietary Fats

First things first, we need to explain what fats (otherwise called lipids) actually are. In essence, they are a type of nutrient that provides the human body with the energy necessary for it to work properly. In addition, fat is necessary for the absorption of certain vitamins crucial for repair and growth. Vitamins A, D, E, and K all require fat in order to be absorbed into the body, demonstrating some ways fat can help the body grow and flourish.

What worries many about fats is that they’re incredibly high in calories. Fat has nine calories per gram, which is more than two times the number of calories present in protein and carbohydrates. This, of course, may cause some concern among people trying to lose weight. On the other hand, fats are vital for keeping you energized during exercise. They are what keeps us going after our bodies use all the calories from carbohydrates [1].

Long story short, fats play an essential role in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. In fact, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that 35% of your daily calorie intake should come from fat [2]. However, not all fats are created equally, with some being much more beneficial than others. This brings us to the next point.

Saturated vs. Unsaturated Fats – Key Differences

Essentially, there are two types of fats – saturated and unsaturated. Their names depend on how much fatty acid of each type they contain. Fatty acids are the primary component of lipids our body absorbs into the blood when we consume fats. Their molecules are typically joined together in groups of three, forming a molecule called triglyceride.

Fatty acids are responsible for numerous important body functions, including energy storage, brain development, controlling inflammation, and blood clotting. Below is a breakdown of how saturated and unsaturated fats differ and where to find them.

Saturated Fats

Fried meat and fries in a pan

Saturated fats are considered the worst for health. They contain the basic glycerol and the typical three fatty acid structure, but this type of fat is as flat as possible. These are the fats packed with no double bonds between fatty acids and saturated with hydrogen molecules. Because of their chemical structure, most saturated fats are solid at room temperature.

When saturated fats are stored, they are capable of being stacked in endless amounts within a small space. Consider saturated fats resembling a ream of 500 papers neatly stacked, as if you just bought some copy paper. These sheets are jammed in an outer pouch to occupy as much space as possible to provide the purchaser with as much paper as possible. 

When this happens inside the body’s arterial lining, a stroke or heart attack is likely to occur. Saturated fats are known to raise your “bad” cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein, LDL for short) and increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, or even death [3]. 

As for where to find saturated fats, they occur naturally in various products, primarily in meat and dairy. Common sources of saturated fats are:

  • Meat: Mostly red meat, including beef, pork, lamb, and poultry
  • Dairy products: Milk, cheese, butter, lard, regular ice cream (non-whipped, full-fat)
  • Several plant oils: For example, coconut oil or palm kernel oils
  • Deep-fried foods: French fries, donuts, etc.
  • Processed meats: Sausages, bacon, hot dogs, and more

Given the negative effects of saturated fats, the question may arise whether one should entirely avoid foods that contain them. The question is more complex than just a simple yes or no. Generally speaking, AHA does recommend limiting the saturated fats daily intake. According to them, your daily dose of calories coming from saturated fats should be less than 6% of your entire caloric intake.

A lot also depends on the type of food you eat. For instance, according to one study, although rich in saturated fatty acids, dairy products may actually decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease [4]. However, essentially, it’s recommended to cut back on foods that contain saturated fat.

Unsaturated Fats

A bowl of food rich in unsaturated fats

In contrast to “bad” fats, “good” fat is referred to as unsaturated and can come in a few forms. The two common forms are known as monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats:

  • Monounsaturated fats: They contain one double bond in their structure. Monounsaturated fats can mostly be found in olive oil, avocados, or peanut oil.
  • Polyunsaturated fats: They contain two or more double bonds in their structure. Polyunsaturated fats can be found in soybeans, walnuts, or sunflower seeds.

An unsaturated fatty acid is composed of the basic fatty acid structure, but unsaturated fat is not horizontal or flat. In fact, an unsaturated fatty acid has a bent structure, which means fewer fat molecules can be stored in a particular space. This is where the nomenclature of “omega” was derived; the area on the fat which resembles a chink or bend is an omega fatty acid (either omega 3, 6, and, to a lesser extent, 9 and 18). 

Using the copy paper analogy, an unsaturated fatty acid resembles crumpled paper. When crumpled computer sheets of paper are attempted to be placed together as a ream of paper, far fewer fit in the same area as the flat papers. 

The same happens in the human body. Fewer fat molecules fit within the arterial walls, which means the arteries are much less likely to be blocked and have far less risk of heart disease or stroke. In addition to this, unsaturated fatty acids are known to bind to smaller particles in the body and be eliminated in the waste. Due to this process, “good” fats (your HDL cholesterol) serve a “cardiac cleansing” throughout the arterial lining. 

You can find unsaturated fats in such foods as:

  • Vegetable oils: Grapeseed oil, olive oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, avocado oil, etc.
  • Fatty fish: For instance, salmon, halibut, tuna, trout, sardines, or herring
  • Plant seeds: Including chia seeds, sunflower seeds, hemp seeds
  • Nuts: Almonds, walnuts, peanuts, cashew, and more

Trans Fats

There’s one more group of fats besides saturated and unsaturated – the so-called trans fats. These are made by heating liquid vegetable oils with hydrogen gas and a catalyst.

Trans fats are considered the most harmful. They are widely used in processed and fried foods, including baked goods or processed snacks (cookies or crisps, for instance). According to various studies, trans fats can raise “bad” cholesterol (LDL), increasing the risk of heart disease and other cardiovascular problems [5]. They are also responsible for creating inflammation and contributing to insulin resistance.

In general, trans fats have no nutritional value, and you should eliminate them entirely from your diet. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) is working to eliminate trans fats from the world food supply by 2023, which should tell you all about their harmful impact on our health.

Tips for Maintaining a Balanced and Fat-Healthy Diet

Fats are crucial for keeping one’s health in check. However, since they’re high in calories, a diet with too much fat intake can lead to increased body weight. As a rule, an adult person should take 20-35% of their daily caloric intake from fats, with saturated fatty acids contributing to 5-6% of calories consumed daily.

One problem here, though, is that most fatty foods contain a combination of various fatty acids. This means many foods consist of saturated and unsaturated fats alike. As such, eliminating one type of fat from your diet is practically impossible. Instead, you should focus on keeping a balanced diet incorporating more nutritious fats into your daily eating habits.

Here are some tips on how you can do that:

  • When cooking or baking, replace butter with oils, such as olive oil or avocado oil.
  • Eat more foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, walnuts, soybean oil, and more.
  • Bake, grill, or steam your foods instead of deep-frying them.
  • Opt for lean meat instead of fatty cuts and replace red meat with fish or poultry.
  • Make olives and avocados the core of your diet.
  • Limit or eliminate processed foods from your diet to ensure your body doesn’t get any trans fats.

Besides adding more nutritious fats to your diet, you should also pay attention to what you’re buying. Always be sure to read nutrition labels, especially when shopping for low-fat products. These often replace fats with refined carbohydrates or sugars, increasing the caloric intake without having no nutritional value.

The Bottom Line

Many people claim that the best way to improve your health and lose weight is to eliminate fats from your diet. Well, as you already know, this is not true. Or at least only partially true. As covered, it all depends on the type of fatty acids. When talking about saturated or trans fats, then true, limiting their intake can be beneficial. However, when it comes to unsaturated fats, they should be one of one’s dietary regime pillars.

Incorporating foods rich in unsaturated fats, such as avocados, fish, nuts, plant oils, or plant seeds, can provide numerous health benefits. These include decreasing the risk of heart disease, helping maintain a healthy weight, or improving memory.

And if you want to learn more about how dietary changes can benefit your health and body performance, be sure to download the Lucas James Ultimate Nutrition Plan. There, you’ll find all the information and useful tips on how proper nutrition can help you achieve your fitness goals. Download it today and start your journey towards improved health and fitness!







About the Author

, Celebrity Personal Trainer and Fitness & Nutrition Expert headquartered in Scottsdale, AZ. He specializes in helping men and women achieve weight loss, muscle building, toning and other customized fitness & nutrition programs to create a Healthy Lifestyle. James offers private luxury personal training, 12-week custom workout plans, and personalized nutrition meal plans. Follow on Google+.

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