Is saturated or unsaturated fat better for you?
According to recent findings, consuming saturated fat may not be bad for health as researchers once thought.
Fat is an essential nutrient that the body needs to function properly. Fats provide energy, absorb certain vitamins and minerals, help maintain body temperature, and insulate the body's vital organs.
In this article, we look at the differences between saturated and unsaturated fat, what they do in the body, and the types of foods that contain them.
Dietary fat and its types
Coconut provides a healthful type of saturated fat.
Fats are classified into three main groups, which are:
These are fats that have single bonds between their molecules and are "saturated" with hydrogen molecules. They tend to be solids at room temperature, such as butter.
Food sources rich in saturated fat include meat and dairy products, such as:
- high-fat cuts of meat
- coconut oil
- palm oil
Research has found that medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) are the most healthful type of saturated fat. Coconut, for example, is rich in MCTs.
Unsaturated fats contain one or more double or triple bonds between the molecules. As oils, these fats are liquids at room temperature. They are also found in solid foods.
This group is further classified into two categories called monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats.
Dietary sources of unsaturated fats include:
- avocados and avocado oil
- olives and olive oil
- peanut butter and peanut oil
- vegetable oils, such as sunflower, corn, or canola
- fatty fish, such as salmon and mackerel
- nuts and seeds, such as almonds, peanuts, cashews, and sesame seeds
These fats are liquid fats that are converted to solid fats during food processing techniques.
Some meats and dairy products contain small amounts of trans fats, but they are usually found in processed foods.
Examples of food products that may contain trans fats include cookies, crackers, doughnuts, and fried foods.
Saturated vs. unsaturated fats in the body
Almonds are a dietary source of unsaturated fat.
Researchers have studied the effects of saturated and unsaturated fat on the human body for decades.
This association fueled further research showing that saturated fats may increase levels of "bad" cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein or LDL). Consuming too much LDL cholesterol may increase a person's risk of heart disease.
Recent research has challenged the link between saturated fats and heart disease. Some studies do not record any significant effects of reducing saturated fat on people's risk of heart disease and strokes.
In contrast, the health benefits of unsaturated fats are well-established. The first evidence of their "heart-healthful" properties dates back to the 1960s, when people from Greece and other Mediterranean regions were found to have a low rate of heart disease despite consuming a high-fat diet.
Unsaturated fats help lower a person's levels of LDL cholesterol, reduce inflammation, and build stronger cell membranes in the body.
Should you pick one over the other?
All foods that are rich in fat contain a combination of fatty acids. As such, no food contains entirely saturated or unsaturated fats, making it very difficult eliminate just one type.
Most health organizations and dietary experts recommend eating saturated fats in moderation, and replacing them with unsaturated fats when possible.
The American Heart Association strongly recommend a saturated fat intake of no more than 5 to 6 percent of total daily calories. This means that for an average 2000-calorie daily diet, no more than 120 calories or 13 grams should come from saturated fats.
However, research from 2008, 2014, and 2018 supports a higher intake of MCT saturated fats, such as from coconut oil, for weight loss and other health benefits. People with existing heart problems should speak to a doctor before adding new saturated fats to their diet.
Tips to ensure a fat-healthy diet
Choosing low-fat milk is recommended to help reduce saturated fat intake.
Some easy ways for people to lower saturated fat intake and include more healthful fats in their diet include:
- Choosing low-fat milk instead of whole milk, or lean meat instead of fatty cuts of meat.
- Being cautious about foods that claim to be "fat-free" or "low in fat." Many of these products contain added sugars and refined carbohydrates to replace the fat. These ingredients can increase calorie intake without any extra nutritional value.
- Limiting intake of processed foods, as these tend to be high in trans fats and sugar.
- Grilling, baking, or steaming foods instead of deep-frying.
- Switching to healthful fats, such as sardines, avocados, olive oil, walnuts, flaxseed, and coconut products. These foods are rich in unsaturated fats or MCTs, which can help brain development, strengthen the immune system, and improve heart health.
Despite the abundance of research on dietary fats, there is still no evidence that conclusively links saturated fats with negative health outcomes such as heart disease.
However, experts agree that limiting intake of most saturated fats and consuming enough unsaturated fats, such as plant oils, avocado, and fish, is the ideal approach to a healthful diet in the long-term.
Written by Gillian D'Souza