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What Is Unsaturated Fat? (Examples, Benefits & Function)

David Dack
Published by David Dack
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: April 18, 2022

Dietary fat is one of those topics that still causes a lot of confusion among consumers. Some people look at the nutritional label of food, and as soon as they see fat, they assume it’s unhealthy.

And while that can be true for many food products in supermarkets, it’s important to understand different types of fat and how they influence your body.

That’s why I got together with my dietitian for a few intense sessions to drill her with many questions on the scientific background of unsaturated fat. It was time well spent, and I’ve collected the basis and the most important details for this blog post.

Let’s dive right in.

Quick Summary

  • Unsaturated fat comes in liquid form at room temperature and is generally classified as “healthy fat” that your body needs.
  • There are two types of unsaturated fat: Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat, and they both help with very different functions of the human body.
  • It’s important not to shy away from unsaturated fat, and getting the right amount in your diet is important.

How Does Science Define Unsaturated Fat?

Avocado, Salmon and olive oil

Science defines unsaturated fat as beneficial fats where the individual lipid molecules have one or more double bonds, making them liquid at room temperature [1].

Unsaturated fat has a unique chemical structure which makes them somewhat loosely bind together, making them remain liquid when it’s warm enough.

Think of these as predominantly plant-based oils like olive oil that also include many types of nuts and seeds.

From a dietary perspective, these are very important nutrients to support your healthy and normal body function [2].

That makes them the polar opposite of saturated fat, which is something you’ll find in highly processed junk food.

However, the jury on saturated fat is definitely not out yet, because there are some recent studies indicating, quite contrary to the long-standing belief, that it might be important for cardiovascular health [3].

One particularly interesting research study revealed that a diet where carbs were replaced with mono and polyunsaturated fats resulted in significantly lower LDL cholesterol [4]. That’s the harmful cholesterol that can cause serious heart disease.

“Unsaturated fats, on the other hand, do not negatively impact cholesterol and contain essential fatty acids and vitamin E which promote health.” -Krista Yoder Latortue, Contributor and Executive Director at HuffPost.com.

The Different Types Of Unsaturated Fat

Avocado, almonds and hazelnuts

There are two types of unsaturated fats, and they come from different sources and influence different processes in the body.

Monounsaturated Fat

The term monounsaturated fat refers to the molecules having only one double bond [5]. You won’t be able to tell this by looking at the fat or even tasting it. But it’s an important fact that influences how your body uses it.

Here are some typical sources of monounsaturated fat:

  • Olive and canola oil
  • Peanut oil
  • Avocados
  • Almonds and hazelnuts
  • Pumpkin and sesame seeds

Adding these to your daily meal plans is very easy. Simply eat some nuts and seeds with your morning oatmeal, and you’ll have a large part of your daily intake sorted.

Polyunsaturated Fat

These fats have more than one double bond between molecules, and you find these as Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids.

Here are some typical sources of polyunsaturated fat:

  • Sunflower, corn, and flaxseed oil
  • Walnuts
  • Fish

As mentioned above, polyunsaturated fats have been linked to reduced cholesterol levels, but they can also provide an anti-inflammatory effect on the body [6].

It’s important to mention that most of the plant sources mentioned above contain both polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, with varying percentages.

If you eat a lot of fish, then you’ve probably already got a good intake of protective polyunsaturated fats - omega 3s. Otherwise, consider taking some fish oil supplements that can significantly impact your immune system and overall health.

How Much Of It Should You Eat?

Eating a slice of avocado using a spoon

According to general dietary guidelines, you should be getting up to 10% of daily calories from polyunsaturated fat and up to 20% from monounsaturated fat [7].

But how much does that translate into for your diet?

To explain that, let’s take a look at the average daily calorie intake for an adult as about 2,000 calories.

You can work out your intake by calculating nine calories per gram of fat.

This is what the calculation looks like:

  • Monounsaturated fat: 2,000 calories x 20% = 400 calories / 9 = 44 grams
  • Polyunsaturated fat: 2,000 calories x 10% = 200 calories / 9 = 22 grams

Those are rough calculations, but you can use food journaling apps to calculate this for you based on your daily food intake. You can also read article if you want to find out more about recommended daily fat intake.

FAQs

Is Unsaturated Fat Bad for Your Health?

No unsaturated fat isn’t bad for your health. In fact, your body is reliant on this nutrient to function properly, but there is a difference in benefits and risks depending on the type of unsaturated fat.

You should carefully monitor your unsaturated fat intake and discuss it with a dietitian as a deficiency could be linked to several health issues.

Does Unsaturated Fat Lower Ldl Cholesterol?

Yes, unsaturated fat can help to lower LDL cholesterol. This bad cholesterol can lead to high blood pressure and heart disease.

Analyze Your Unsaturated Fat Intake

Now that you fully understand what unsaturated fat is and that your body is reliant on it for many different functions, it’s time to stay on top of your intake. You can use a diet journaling app like Noom to keep track of all your macronutrients to get a daily value.

Many people then find that they aren’t eating enough unsaturated fat.

And if you think that your diet might be lacking in polyunsaturated fat and you’re not a fan of eating fish every day, then I recommend investing in a good Omega-3 supplement.

With a high-quality supplement, you can achieve a healthier balance in your life, ultimately leading to better athletic performance, weight management, and overall health and longevity.


References:

  1. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/fats-and-cholesterol/types-of-fat/
  2. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/the-skinny-on-unsaturated-fats-why-you-need-them-the-best-sources/
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34547017/ 
  4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12716665/
  5. https://pediaa.com/difference-between-monounsaturated-and-polyunsaturated-fats
  6. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2020.00122/full
  7. https://news.christianacare.org/2013/04/nutrition-numbers-revealed-fat-intake/

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