Saturated, unsaturated, and trans fat: What is the difference?
The health impact of fats varies quite a bit depending on their type. Information on which fats benefit your health and which do not can be confusing. Let this be a guide to all things fat, so you can be an educated consumer and feel confident that you are making smart food choices for you and your family.
Saturated fats are solid at room temperature. They are found in animal products and are a major contributor of raising LDL (bad) cholesterol. High LDL (bad cholesterol) increases risk of heart disease and stroke. Saturated fat should be limited and substituted with its counterpart, unsaturated fat, as often as possible.
Sources of saturated fat include:
- Palm and palm kernel oils
- Skin on chicken and turkey
- Full fat dairy
- Ice cream
- Some baked and fried foods
Limit intake of saturated fat to 5% to 6% of your total calories. For example, if you require 2,000 calories a day, no more than 13 grams of saturated fat should be consumed.
Unsaturated fats tend to be liquid at room temperature. There are two types of unsaturated fats, monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fats. Both are vital to our bodies.
Monounsaturated fats are plant-based fats that reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and provide health benefits especially when used to replace saturated and trans fat.
Sources of monounsaturated fat include:
- Olive oil
- Peanut oil
- Canola oil
- Safflower oil
- Sesame oil
- Peanut butter
- Many nuts and seeds
Intake of monounsaturated fat can be up to 20% of your total calories. Using the example of 2,000 calories a day, 35 to 40 grams of monounsaturated fat can be consumed.
Polyunsaturated fats are divided further into omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. These fatty acids are essential, promote heart health, and provide an anti-inflammatory effect. To meet omega-3 fatty acid needs, the USDA recommends that adults consume eight or more ounces of oily fish each week. Many Americans consume enough omega-6 fatty acids from oils.
Sources of Omega-3 fatty acids include:
- Flaxseeds and flaxseed oil
- Chia seeds
Sources of Omega-6 fatty acids include:
- Safflower oil
- Sunflower oil
- Corn oil
- Soybean oil
- Sunflower seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
Intake of polyunsaturated fat can be up to 10% of your total calories. Using the example of 2,000 calories a day, 10 to 20 grams of monounsaturated fat can be consumed.
Trans fats increase LDL (bad) cholesterol and lower HDL (good) cholesterol. They increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. Trans fat includes artificial and naturally occurring sources. Artificial trans fats are liquid oils that have been turned into solids in an industrial process. They are found in many fast foods, processed foods, and foods packaged with preservatives. Naturally occurring trans fats are in some dairy and meat products.
The main dietary source of trans fats is “partially hydrogenated oils”, which can be found in the ingredient list on food labels. The grams of trans fat are listed on food labels, but note that products can be listed as “0 grams trans fat” if they contain less than 0.5 grams per serving. The best way to ensure a food is trans fat free is to read the ingredient list and ensure “partially hydrogenated oils” are not listed.
Sources of trans fat include:
- Fried and battered foods
- Pie crusts
- Packaged cookies, crackers, muffins, cakes
- Many stick margarines, shortening
- Many processed or pre-packaged foods
Because our bodies do not need any trans fat to function, consume as little as possible, if any at all. Read food labels carefully and substitute trans fat with a source of monounsaturated fat or polyunsaturated fat when able.
If you have more questions about your diet, it’s always a great idea to speak with a registered dietitian. Registered dietitians are the only credentialed experts qualified to address your unique health questions.
No need to avoid healthy omega-6 fats. Available at https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/no-need-to-avoid-healthy-omega-6-fats. Accessed on July 22, 2022.
The Best Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Available at https://health.clevelandclinic.org/the-best-sources-of-omega-3-fatty-acids/. Accessed on July 22, 2022.
What’s the Difference Between Saturated Fat and Unsaturated Fat? Available at
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