You may have seen bad press surrounding dietary fat, but how much of it is true? Fats are an essential part of our diet, especially when it comes to absorbing other vital nutrients and helping our bodies function properly. The difficulty is that not all fats are created equal, and when it comes to unsaturated vs. saturated fats in particular, there are a few things to consider.
In general, unsaturated fats like avocados, olive oil, nuts, and seeds are the “good” fats we want to include in our diets. These support, among other things, the health of the heart and brain. Saturated fat, on the other hand, should be consumed in moderation, with excessive amounts being associated with negative health consequences.
Here we will explain in more detail the differences between unsaturated and saturated fats and the functions they serve in the body. And if you’re looking for a nutrient-dense diet high in healthy fats, our guide to those Mediterranean cuisine is a great place to start.
What is dietary fat?
dietary fat refers to the fat we get from our food, which distinguishes it from body fat or blood triglycerides. It is one of three macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fats) that are required for essential body processes and functions.
All fats contain nine calories per gram, but not all fats are as nutritious as others. Polyunsaturated fats, especially omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, are needed for the proper functioning of our brain and body, while monounsaturated fats help us absorb fat-soluble vitamins like vitamins A, D, E, and K. Some fats, such as saturated fats and trans fats, have been linked to adverse health effects including metabolic syndrome (a combination of obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure) and cancer.
What is saturated fat?
Saturated fat is a singly bonded carbon chain saturated with hydrogen atoms, meaning it’s usually solid at room temperature. While the process of hydrogenation turns unsaturated fats into saturated fats (trans fats) by forcing hydrogen into empty spots in the carbon chain, saturated fats are naturally like that. While eating excess saturated fat can have negative health effects, eating small amounts of saturated fat in moderation is fine, so you don’t have to cut out your favorite foods entirely to avoid it.
dr Kevin Barrett, GP at New street surgery (opens in new tab) in Hertfordshire, UK, goes on to explain: “We need to eat some fat because it is important for the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K and is a source of essential fatty acids. Saturated fats in highly processed foods have been linked to negative health outcomes, but those from less processed foods do not have such powerful connections.”
Some sources of saturated fat are:
- Greasy pieces of meat
- Processed meats, such as sausages or bacon
- butter, lard and shortening
- Hard cheeses like cheddar
- cream and ice cream
- cookies, cakes and pastries
- Savory snacks like chips, crackers
- Fried foods
- coconut oil
According to a study in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences (opens in new tab). With that in mind, it’s important to be aware of the amount of saturated fat you’re consuming, as an estimated 70% of Americans exceed the recommended daily allowance, according to the USDA (opens in new tab). For a 2,000-calorie diet, this equates to about 22 grams of saturated fat per day.
dr Deborah Lee, from dr Fox online pharmacy (opens in new tab), says that eating too much saturated fat can lead to heart problems. “In general, saturated fats are ‘bad fats,'” she says. “These are the fats we should all be eating less of. They’re usually associated with elevated levels of bad cholesterol, which increases the risk of atherosclerosis (deposition of fatty platelets in the arteries), which can cause heart disease, including heart attack and stroke. In general, saturated fat should not make up more than 5-6% of your total daily caloric intake.”
What is unsaturated fat?
There are two types of unsaturated fatty acids: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Unsaturated fats can increase “good” HDL cholesterol levels in your body and lower “bad” LDL cholesterol levels, which can build up in veins and arteries and cause high blood pressure.
These fats come from plant sources and include:
- olive and rapeseed oil
- nuts, nut butters and nut oils
- Seeds, such as pumpkin or sesame seeds
A 2021 study in the nutrient (opens in new tab) Journal notes that monounsaturated fat consumption can lead to beneficial cardiometabolic outcomes. Another study in the Annals of the New York Academy of Science (opens in new tab) also found that boosting HDL (good) cholesterol can also reduce inflammation in the body, giving it potentially cardioprotective properties. Since monounsaturated fats promote HDL (good) cholesterol, it’s important to make sure you’re eating enough to support heart health.
These fats come from plant sources and include omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids
Omega-3 sources include:
- Oily fish, like mackerel and salmon
- Seeds such as flaxseed or chia seeds
- nuts, such as walnuts
- legumes, such as soybeans
“The omega-3 acids in oily fish are EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid),” explains Dr. Lee. “Although the human body can synthesize EPA and DHA, it is not efficient at it, meaning levels tend to be low. Therefore, it is important to ensure you are getting enough omega-3, either through diet or by taking an omega-3 supplement. Omega-3 fatty acids are believed to help prevent heart disease from occurring by helping to lower triglyceride (fat in the blood) levels, lowering blood pressure and improving circulation.”
Sources of omega-6 are:
- meat, fish and poultry
- legumes, such as soybeans
- sunflower oil
“Omega-6 fatty acids are essential fatty acids that are obtained from food and are mainly used for energy,” explains Dr. Lee. “The health benefits of omega-6 are less clear. It is recommended to eat more omega-3 than omega-6. For example, omega-6 is found in meat, poultry, fish, eggs, soybean oil, corn oil, walnuts, almonds, and cashews.”
A review in the Journal of Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy (opens in new tab) tells us that omega-3 and omega-6 must be consumed in balance with each other. Omega-3s are used to build our cell structure and they are also important for your immune system to function properly. High omega-6 levels can contribute to the development or worsening of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory diseases, but when eaten in balance with omega-3, they lower harmful LDL cholesterol levels, increase protective HDL, and help to improve insulin sensitivity.
Unsaturated vs. Saturated Fatty Acids: Finding the Right Balance
That USDA guidance (opens in new tab) recommends that 20-35% of your total calories should come from fat. This equates to about 44g to 77g per day on a 2,000 calorie daily diet. Less than 10% of your daily calories should come from saturated fat, 15-20% from monounsaturated fat, and 5-10% from polyunsaturated fat.
dr Lee is an advocate of Mediterranean cuisine, as it is low in saturated fat and high in unsaturated fat. “It may be that eating less saturated fat and more unsaturated fat will help increase your longevity,” she says. “People who lived in Greece and other Mediterranean countries and have always consumed high levels of unsaturated fat have a lower risk of heart disease than people in other Western countries.”
Opt for the best quality fats for minimally processed liquid fats. For example, you might prefer olive oil, which has been shown to have cardioprotective properties, to cooking with butter. Additionally, finding healthier alternatives to unhealthy foods high in saturated fat can help you stay within recommended daily limits.
Some healthy swaps you can make are:
|Unhealthy fatty foods||Healthy alternatives|
|Greasy pieces of meat||Lean meat, like chicken or fish|
|Processed meats such as sausages, bacon||Lean meats like chicken or fish (you can also get chicken sausages and turkey bacon, although these can be highly processed)|
|cream or ice cream||Greek yogurt or sorbet|
|Hard cheeses like Parmesan||Feta or cottage cheese|
|butter, lard or shortening||Olive oil, you can also use mashed bananas or applesauce to replace the fat when baking|
|cookies, cakes and pastries||Fruit, muesli, yogurt with honey|
|chips and crackers||Nuts and seeds, kale chips, homemade vegetable or tofu chips|
This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide medical advice.
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