The Skinny on Unsaturated Fats: Why You Need Them and the Best Sources

Boost your health by eating more plant-based foods and fish
A large piece of salmon on a cutting board surrounded by avocado, olive oil and nuts

Ready to turn your world upside down? Dietary fats can be good for you. In fact, they’re an essential nutrient to keep your body’s motor running. The key, though, is eating the right kinds of fats.

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Which brings us to unsaturated fats — aka, the “good fats” to have in your diet. Let’s dig into what they can do for your health and where to find them with registered dietitian Anna Taylor, RD.

What is unsaturated fat?

In the simplest of explanations, unsaturated fat is the fat typically found in plant-based food (think items like vegetables, nuts and seeds) as well as in many fish that land on our plates, says Taylor.

But let’s zoom in a little closer to get a better understanding of this chemical compound.

Scientifically speaking, unsaturated fat is a fatty acid built primarily from carbon and hydrogen. What’s unique about unsaturated fat on a molecular level is that it’s missing at least two hydrogen atoms. Hence the “unsaturated” in the name. (We’ll get to saturated fats in a bit.)

The missing hydrogen atoms mean that a few carbon atoms share double or even triple bonds. That weakens the overall structure of unsaturated fats — which is very, very important when we’re talking about your health.

Here’s why: The weaker structure means unsaturated fats are typically an oily liquid instead of a solid at room temperature. That means they’re also less likely to eventually gunk up your arteries.

Types of unsaturated fat

There are two types of unsaturated fats in the food that you eat: monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats (such as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids). The difference between “mono” and “poly” unsaturated fats involves the number of double bonds (as discussed above).

“So monounsaturated are great for you and omega-3 polyunsaturated fats are stupendous for you,” says Taylor.

As for omega-6s, they aren’t bad, exactly … but Americans already get too many of them, says Taylor. That means eating more omega-6s can create imbalances that lead to increased inflammation in your body. (Omega-6s are still better for you than saturated fats, though.)

Benefits of unsaturated fats

Research connects consuming moderate amounts of unsaturated fats with a slew of health benefits, most notably, lower risk of premature death.

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Unsaturated fats can help boost good cholesterol and lower bad cholesterol in your blood, which can lower your risk of heart disease or stroke, explains Taylor. They also work to maintain your body’s cells and brain health, and certain fats even fight inflammation.

In addition, unsaturated fats can help you absorb certain vitamins, such as A, D, E and K.

The difference between unsaturated fat and saturated fat

All those good things we just said about unsaturated fats? Well, in most cases, the explanation is the opposite when it comes to what saturated fats do to your body.

A diet heavy on saturated fat can make your cholesterol levels skyrocket, cause inflammation and increase your risk of heart-related issues. Given that, it’s no surprise that the American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fats.

Saturated fat is higher in meats like beef, pork and poultry, plus other animal-based food like eggs and full-fat dairy (including cheese and butter). It’s also found in tropical cooking oils like coconut oil and palm oil.

“Saturated fats are definitely a problem — and we eat way too many of them,” says Taylor.

Going back to the scientific side of things, saturated fat carries a full complement of hydrogen atoms. That makes it more stable molecularly. It also means that saturated fats are more “solid,” which is not good for your system.

Balancing fats in your diet

So, how much fat should be in your diet? A good rule of thumb is that fats should account for about 30% of your daily caloric intake. (Recommendations on calories people need per day range from 1,600 to 3,000 to maintain your weight.)

“Ideally, most of the fats you eat should be the healthier unsaturated fats,” says Taylor. “Limit saturated fat to no more than 5% to 6% of your total calories, or about 11 to 13 grams per day for someone eating 1,600 to 2,000 calories per day. Avoid trans fats completely.”

(Note: Artificial trans fats were once found in a lot of processed food, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned them in 2018. Check labels of older pantry products for partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, the main culprit of artificial trans fat.)

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Easing stress on your heart or losing a few unwanted pounds often can be done by shifting your meal menu. “Replace the bad fats in your diet with the good fats,” advises Taylor. “It can make a big difference.”

Foods high in unsaturated fat

You’ll find unsaturated fats in a few different areas of your grocery store. (Bonus health benefit: Walking the shopping cart up and down the food aisles should help you get some extra steps in, too.)

Food high in monounsaturated fats include:

  • Avocados. The wrinkly green fruit is packed with nutrients and versatile when it comes to use. Want proof? Check out these five creative ways to use an avocado.
  • Nuts. This would include almonds, cashews, pecans and pistachios. Let’s include peanuts (and peanut butter) within this group, too, even though it’s technically in the legume family.
  • Seeds. Items to add to your shopping list here include pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds and sunflower seeds.
  • Olive oil and olives. Pro tip: Try to use extra virgin olive oil, which is unrefined and packed with more nutrients and antioxidants, for no-heat cooking methods such as a dressing or dipping sauce. (EVOO breaks down when heated.)
    When the burners go on, use virgin olive oil for cooking with low to moderate heat. For higher temperatures, try avocado oil, peanut oil, or canola oil — all of which contain monounsaturated fats. (Yes, canola contains both mono- and polyunsaturated fats.)

Polyunsaturated fats come in two main varieties:

  • Omega-3: Good sources include several kinds of fish, like herring tuna, salmon, flax seeds, walnuts and chia seeds.
  • Omega-6: Canola, soybean and sunflower oils fall in this category.

Rethinking your diet

Remember that fats are just one part of what you eat. “You don’t want to hyper-fixate on just fats,” cautions Taylor. “Look at the foundation of your entire diet. Build an eating pattern that’s good for you and one you can enjoy.”

A healthy eating plan includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein. (Pro tip: Taylor recommends the Mediterranean diet to build an eating plan that can work over the long haul.)

“Every meal is an opportunity to make good choices,” says Taylor. “If you fill up on good, healthy foods, you’re not going to be missing other items. Aim for variety and balance and you’ll be heading in the right direction.”

To hear more from Taylor on this topic, listen to the Health Essentials Podcast episode, “How To Incorporate Healthy Fats Into Your Diet.” New episodes of the Health Essentials Podcast are available every Wednesday.

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