Difference between Saturated and Unsaturated Fats 2022

It can be confusing to try and untangle which fats you should consume and which you should avoid, especially as newer research changes what you may have heard before.

The difference between saturated and unsaturated fat lies in the number of double bonds in the fatty acid chain. Saturated fatty acids lack double bonds between the individual carbon atoms, while in unsaturated fatty acids there is at least one double bond in the fatty acid chain. Saturated fats tend to be solid at room temperature and from animal sources, while unsaturated fats are usually liquid and from plant sources.



Saturated and unsaturated fats have different properties that can affect your overall health, especially heart health. Limiting the lipids (fats) in your diet is key to controlling cholesterol levels, protecting the liver and kidneys, and avoiding heart-related disease.

Studies suggest that consuming only unsaturated fats may not be as heart-healthy as once thought, and consuming saturated fats may not be as dangerous (R).

This article explains what saturated fat, unsaturated fat, and cholesterol are. It includes examples of foods that are rich in each kind of fat, and it shows how they affect your diet and your health.

What Is Saturated Fat?

Saturated fats are called "saturated" because of their chemical structure. All fats are made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen molecules. Saturated fats are "saturated" with hydrogen atoms, which means they have the greatest number of hydrogen atoms possible and no double bonds in their chemical structure.

What does this chemical structure mean? For one, it means that, like butter, they become solid at room temperature.

Foods that contain saturated fats include:
  • Animal meat including beef, poultry, pork
  • Certain plant oils such as palm 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
Some studies have shown that consuming a high amount of saturated fats may increase your low-density lipoprotein (LDL), also known as "bad" cholesterol. High LDL levels may increase your risk of heart disease (R). However, there have been multiple studies that say saturated fat does not actually have a negative effect on your heart (R).

The more saturated fat you eat, the more LDL you seem to have in your body. However, studies have shown that not all LDL is bad. Saturated fat increases the amount of large, buoyant LDL you have. These larger LDL particles do not appear to increase your risk of heart disease.

On the other hand, small, dense LDL has been shown to contribute to atherosclerosis, the build-up of plaque on your arteries, which leads to heart disease. Eating saturated fat doesn't appear to increase your small, dense LDL. In a few cases, the risk of plaque build-up even went down when saturated fat was consumed (R).

The type of saturated fat-containing foods you eat also seems to make a difference in your heart health. One large study suggested that consuming dairy products may actually lower the risk of cardiovascular disease (R). 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: This type of unsaturated fat 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: This type of unsaturated fat contains two or more double bonds in its structure. They are also liquid at room temperature. Polyunsaturated fats include safflower oil, sunflower oil, and corn oil.
Examples of foods that contain unsaturated fats include:

  • Nuts
  • Plant oils
  • Certain fish like salmon, tuna, and anchovies, which contain omega-3 unsaturated fatty acids
  • Olives
  • Avocados

Saturated or Unsaturated: Which Fat is Good?

Based on available evidence, experts disagree on how important it is to limit saturated fats in your diet. Still, the AHA (2021 Dietary Guidance to Improve Cardiovascular Health) does recommend limiting it
and replacing it with nontropical liquid plant oils.

Fats from dairy products are considered a safe choice. That said, all experts agree that processed meats should be avoided.

Difference Between Fat and Cholesterol

Cholesterol and fats are both lipids. They are found in the food you eat, and they circulate in your bloodstream. Cholesterol has a more complex chemical structure compared to fats.

In the body, cholesterol is bound to protein as low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or high-density lipoprotein (HDL). LDL may increase your risk of heart disease, while HDL, often called "good" cholesterol, is considered to be protective against heart problems (R).

There are countless diets. Which one should you choose?

For example, some of the more popular diets are the ones that advise substantially reducing carbs, like the paleo diet, keto diet or Atkins diet. There are diets that shun fats, like the Ornish diet, and you have high-fat diets that advise you to eat lots of fats.

The problem is that most diets don’t look at the big picture, nor do they look at the long-term effects. Rather, they mainly focus on short-term results such as weight loss.

Most diets have “great” short-term results, such as weight loss and improved metabolic biomarkers (like lower triglycerides), but are unhealthy in the longterm and can actually accelerate aging.  

Let’s look at some examples of how insights into aging can help us to better see if certain “healthy” food diets are really healthy in the long-term.

Take milk, for example. Whether milk is healthy or not is a fierce debate that has been raging on for decades. There are studies showing milk is healthy, given regular milk consumption could, for example, reduce the risk of colon cancer (R) (unfortunately, many studies are directly or indirectly funded by the dairy industry), while there are also many studies showing that milk is unhealthy, given it can increase the risk of prostate cancer (R) and Parkinson’s disease (R) and even increase mortality (R).

However, if you approach the milk discussion from an aging perspective, you can immediately see that milk is very likely unhealthy, especially in the long term, given that milk accelerates aging in many ways.

For example, milk contains substances that activate multiple powerful aging pathways, like mTOR, IGF, and insulin receptors. The more you activate these receptors, the faster you age.

Milk also contains galactose, a substance researchers use to actually accelerate aging in their lab animals to study aging (R,R,R,R).

Another example are high-protein diets, like the classic paleo diet, Dukan or Atkins diet. Often, these diets result in substantial weight loss, improved insulin sensitivity, lower triglycerides, and so on.

However, these are all short-term effects. If you consider these diets from an aging (biogerontological) viewpoint, one can predict that these diets are very likely to accelerate aging in the long term.

Too much animal protein accelerates aging. If you do eat animal protein, eat white meat (poultry) and fish. Some scientists even advise to only eat fish and vegetable protein (e.g., nuts and legumes). If you consume fish, opt for species that have low mercury content, and don’t eat too much high-mercury fish like tuna, swordfish, mackerel, and halibut.

One very important mechanism that causes us to age is the accumulation of proteins inside and outside our cells, a process that also plays a role in various aging diseases, like Alzheimer’s disease or aging-related heart failure. Consuming lots of animal proteins accelerates this process.

Activation of “nutrient-sensing pathways” in the cell by amino acids (like the mTOR receptor) accelerates aging. If you eat meat, you strongly activate these nutrient-sensing pathways (R,R,R,R,R,R,R,R,R,R,R,R,R,R).

Giving various species (including humans) lots of animal protein shortens their lifespan and increases their risk of aging-related diseases.

Too much animal protein accelerates aging, as hundreds of scientific studies have shown (just as too much sugar and too many unhealthy fats also accelerate aging).

Another very popular diet is the ketogenic or keto diet. Like the paleo diet, is also a very low-carbohydrate diet (you eat few sugars and starches), but instead of lots of protein, you consume lots of fats.

However, this is also not a good thing in the long term. Our bodies have difficulty in processing fats (after all, fats and our watery bodies don’t mix well together). Fats have the annoying tendency to stick everywhere around in our body and are difficult to process and store. Many fats, especially long-chain saturated fats, can induce inflammation, for example by directly stimulating immune cells. Other common fats induce cellular senescence, or overburden the liver.

Nonetheless, some fats can be healthy, including even specific saturated fats (like butyric acid and caprylic acid). But it’s not that “most fats are healthy” and that you can eat large amounts of fats (like some keto diet gurus claim), or that most fats should be shunned (as many governments want you to believe). It’s more complicated than that!

Both the paleo and keto diets bring people into ketosis (because very few carbs are consumed), but they achieve this in a less ideal way. Ketosis is healthy, as long as it is reached by not eating high amounts of animal protein or fats, like when you are fasting. 

Most diets are unhealthy. So, what should you do?

  • Replace potatoes, pasta, and rice with (extra) vegetables (mainly), legumes, mushrooms or quinoa. Replace bread in the morning, for example, with oatmeal/chia seed/cauliflower/chickpea porridge made with plant-based milk (e.g., hazelnut, cashew, almond milk).
  • Eat little or no red meat (beef, pork, and sheep) and more fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, herring, anchovies, and sardines), poultry (chicken, turkey), mushrooms, tofu (miso, natto, tempeh), or mushroom-based or pea-based meat substitutes.
  • Replace animal milk or yogurt with low-sugar, plant-based (e.g., hazelnut, almond, soy, cashew) milk or yogurt. Cheese and eggs are allowed in moderation.
  • Eat specific foods that improve longevity, like blueberries, pomegranate, broccoli, kale, salmon, chia seeds, dark chocolate, and many others.
  • Eat less. Try to eat two meals a day, with breakfast being the most important meal of the day. Eat within a 12-hour period, so your body can fast for 12 hours. Fast for ideally three days a few times per year, like at the start of every new season. If you are up to it, practice caloric restriction.
  • Adequate hydration. Drink green tea or coffee (yes, coffee can reduce the risk of various aging-related diseases).
  • Avoid unhealthy fats such as trans fats and omega 6 fats. In general, try to avoid fried foods, fast food, and bakery products. More specifically, reduce your intake of crackers, cookies, cakes, and other baked foods, refrigerated dough products (e.g., cinnamon rolls, biscuits, etc.), snack foods (e.g., microwave popcorn), fast-food (e.g., frozen pizza), ready-to-eat meals, various vegetable shortenings (made from partially hydrogenated vegetable oil), french fries, and omega-6-rich oils and fats, like sunflower oil, corn oil, safflower oil, margarine, sesame oil, mayonnaise, and many salad dressings. 

Low Fat Diet

If you are watching your cholesterol and triglyceride levels (another type of fat that circulates in the blood), try to include a variety of healthy foods like lean meats, vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains.

More research is needed to understand the influence of unsaturated and saturated fats on cardiovascular disease. Although there has been research suggesting that saturated fats are not as bad for heart health as they were once thought, doctors still usually recommend limiting your intake (R).

A handful of walnuts or a lean piece of beef is a better choice for your meals than a bag of chips or sausage links. Both may contain fats, but the nuts and lean meat also contain vitamins, minerals, and other healthy nutrients.

The chips and processed meat, meanwhile, may be higher in sugar, chemical preservatives, salt, and trans fats. All of these can have a negative effect on your lipid levels and heart health.

Can You Eat Too Much Unsaturated Fat?

Both unsaturated fat and saturated fat add calories (and weight to your waistline) if you consume too much. Practicing moderation is the best way to stay healthy. Additionally, the type of fat-containing foods you consume can make a difference in your lipid levels.

Moving Forward

There’s a lot of disagreement about how much saturated fat is “safe” or “healthy.” Some types of saturated fat are associated with heart disease.

Saturated fat found in beef, butter and other rich foods may not increase your cardiovascular risk since they result in larger LDL. However, your best bet might be to limit the saturated fats in your diet anyway.

Instead, choose unsaturated fats as your main source of fats and lipids. This will help you to avoid unhealthy sources of saturated fats, such as processed meats, that are known to increase the risk of health problems.

The best course is to check and discuss with your doctor and continue to include foods in your diet that are natural, unprocessed, high in nutrients, and lower in calories.

Main Sources and References:

Saturated vs. Unsaturated Fats (VeryWell Health)

2021 Dietary Guidance to Improve Cardiovascular Health: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association



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