The Difference Between Saturated and Unsaturated Fats

We hear a lot about fat these days. Some fat is good, some fat is bad (looking at you, trans fat). So what’s what when it comes to fats — and why?

butter and oil

Fat is an essential element to cooking your favorite dishes and naturally occurring in foods, but the word fat itself doesn’t exactly scream healthy. We’ve been conditioned to think all fat is bad. It’s actually more complex than that.

Some foods claim fame to good fat, the unsaturated nice guys. Others have a bad rap because of partially hydrogenated trans fat found in highly processed foods. But if you’re wondering what exactly makes unsaturated fat so good for you and the other types of fat bad, well, let’s talk about it.

What is saturated fat?

saturated fats

Scientifically speaking, these fats are defined by having mostly single bonds in their fatty acid chain. They’re found in animal products, including red meat and poultry. Butter and full-fat dairy products like whole milk are also high in saturated fat. The higher the fat content in milk, the more saturated fat it contains.

Saturated fat becomes solid at room temperature— for example, beloved bacon grease as it cools down. Studies have linked saturated fat to high cholesterol and risk of heart disease. Because of this, The American Heart Association recommends that only small amounts, 5 to 6 percent of your daily calories come from saturated fat to keep up good heart health.

What is unsaturated fat?

unsaturated fats

Now for the good stuff: the fat that has double bonds in its fatty acid chain. There are two types of unsaturated fats: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.

  • Monounsaturated fat is found most often from plant sources. It’s what makes avocados so popular with health-conscious crowds. It’s also found in nuts and seeds like almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds.
  • Polyunsaturated fats are found in walnuts, flax seeds, and salmon. Unlike red meat and poultry, fatty fish like salmon and tuna contain unsaturated fat like omega-3 fatty acids that make it a healthier protein source.

According to the Mayo Clinic, these types of fat help reduce LDL cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein) that is recognized as being the “bad” cholesterol when substituted for saturated fats.

Cooking oils with unsaturated fat

Vegetable oils like olive oil, peanut oil, and canola oil are high in monounsaturated fat (canola oil has both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats). For more polyunsaturated fat, try sunflower oil or flaxseed oil.

Why is unsaturated fat healthier than saturated?

Saturated fat is associated with higher cholesterol levels and heart disease. Unsaturated fat is thought to do the exact opposite: improve cholesterol and improve heart conditions. However, according to The Harvard School of Public Health, cutting saturated fat from your diet won’t improve your health drastically unless you replace it with a healthy fat.

Our bodies actually need some fat. People tend to replace saturated fats with a more fat-free option that contains carbohydrates instead, which still leaves them at risk for high cholesterol and heart disease.

In recent years, some medical experts have introduced findings that claim saturated fat isn’t as bad we think. Yet others still strongly argue it’s a big no-no. That being said, consuming a moderate-fat diet from a variety of sources (prioritizing unsaturated fats whenever possible) seems to be the best mentality.

Is saturated fat necessary?

Some health foods and plant-based foods do contain saturated fats. Chicken, which is considered leaner meat, still contains saturated fat. Coconut oil also contains saturated fat. It’s okay to eat these foods for their health benefits, but it’s best to keep balance in mind.

The difference between fat and cholesterol

The body requires small amounts of cholesterol, which is comprised of “good” HDL (high-density lipoprotein) and “bad” LDL (low-density lipoprotein). More HDL cholesterol is better because it helps prevent heart disease. Triglycerides are the fats that are commonly found in food and reside in the body. A food high in saturated or trans fat likely has a surplus of cholesterol.

Incorporating more unsaturated fat in your diet

  • Switch your cooking oil: Instead of butter, use canola oil and olive oil. When shopping for nonstick spray, look for canola, avocado, and sunflower oils.
  • An avocado a day keeps the doctor away: Experiment with different ways to cook with avocados, like in baked goods, pureeing and adding them to dressing, and slicing them to be a burger condiment.
  • Forget baking with butter: You can puree avocado and use it in place of butter when baking.
  • Eat fish a few nights per week: Try this simple baked salmon recipe, blackened salmon, or salmon burgers with dill sauce.

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Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

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