What Is the Difference Between Unsaturated and Saturated Fats?

Types of Dietary Fat Influenced Cholesterol Levels

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Saturated fats and unsaturated fats are found in a variety of foods. The types of fats to consume if you are following a lipid-lowering diet has been the subject of some controversy. Some studies suggest that these all of these fats are not created equal.

The American Heart Association 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, recent studies suggest that unsaturated fats alone may not be as heart healthy, and consuming saturated fats may not be as dangerous as once thought.

To clear up some of this confusion, let's compare saturated and unsaturated fats and see how they may affect your diet.

What Is Saturated Fat?

Saturated fats are a category of fats that have no double bonds in their chemical structure. They are, therefore, “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 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

Saturated Fats in Your Diet

The American Heart Association recommends that less than 5 percent to 6 percent of your daily caloric intake consist of saturated fat.

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 recent 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.

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 your risk of cardiovascular disease. 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:

  • Monounsaturated fats: A type of unsaturated fat that 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: Another type of unsaturated fat that 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.

    Unsaturated Fats in Your Diet

    The American Heart Association recommends that most of your daily fat intake should come from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Foods containing unsaturated fats include:

    • Nuts
    • Plant oils such as canola, vegetable, or plant oil
    • Certain fish like salmon, tuna, and anchovy, which contain omega-3 unsaturated fatty acids
    • Olives
    • Avocados

    What's 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 complex chemical structure 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." 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.

    Which Fats Should You 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 on unsaturated and saturated fats on cardiovascular disease. Although there has been recent research suggesting that saturated fats are not as bad for heart health as once thought, the current recommendations still remain in place.

    Both unsaturated fat and saturated fat are equally energy-dense. This means that you should try to eat both in moderation. These can add calories to your meal and weight to your waistline if you consume too much of either one.

    Additionally, the type of fat-containing foods you consume can make a huge 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.

    A Word From Verywell

    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 American Heart Association continues to weigh the research and make recommendations aimed at reducing your health risks.

    Sources:

    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.

    De Souza RJ, Mente A, Maroleanu A, et al. Intake of Saturated and Trans-Unsaturated Fatty Acids and Risk of All Cause Mortality, Cardiovascular Disease, and Type 2 Diabetes: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Observational Studies. BMJ. 2015;351:h3978.

    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

    The Skinny on Fats. American Heart Association. 2017. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/Cholesterol/PreventionTreatmentofHighCholesterol/Know-Your-Fats_UCM_305628_Article.jsp#.WQzNZtLyvmY.

    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.

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