What Are Saturated and Unsaturated Fats?

While fat in general plays an important part in a healthy diet, the kind of fat in your food – either saturated or unsaturated fat – is something to consider when preparing snacks and meals.

Often spoken of as “bad” fats and “good” fats respectively, saturated and unsaturated fats are present in many of the foods we eat. Understanding the differences between the two types, where they can be found, and their potential impact on the body can help you make healthy choices as you cook and shop.

What are saturated and unsaturated fats?

Saturated and unsaturated fats are different kinds of fat, found in different amounts in different foods. While full fat dairy products and meats (as well as many processed foods like cakes and biscuits) are high in “bad” saturated fat, great sources of “good” unsaturated fat include nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils.

One of the most relevant aspects of the difference between these types of fat is in the impact they have on the body. So which kind of fat is better for you?

Saturated vs. unsaturated fat

While it’s not practical to eliminate saturated fat in your diet entirely, as it is present (in small amounts) in many foods, replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats in the diet has been shown to lower blood cholesterol – one of the risk factors in the development of heart disease*.

So paying attention to the amount of saturated fat vs. unsaturated fat in your diet, and opting for unsaturated options where possible, is a positive step for heart health*.

What is the difference between saturated and unsaturated fats?

So what are saturated and unsaturated fats, structurally speaking? 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 are solid at room temperature, while unsaturated fats are liquid.

Saturated unsaturated fats infographic  

Saturated fat and unsaturated fat: Making changes to your diet

  • Know the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of total fat, and how much of that can be saturated. NHS guidelines indicate that the average adult can eat up to 70g of fat a day, of which no more than 20g should be saturated and the rest (50g) unsaturated.
  • Read nutritional labels, such as the reference intake information on the front of packets, to find out how much saturated and unsaturated fat is in foods. Most prepared foods have a label indicating the quantity of fat per portion, and the proportion of that amount that includes saturates. If you have already eaten 70% of your allowance in one meal, you will have little allowance for further saturated fat in the other foods you eat that day.
  • Eat more unsaturated fat…
    Nuts and seeds, as well as seed oils and spreads, are a good source of unsaturated fat – consider adding about a tablespoon as a topping for cereal, desserts, salads or porridge, or even enjoying them as a swift snack on the go. Find a full list of cholesterol lowering foods here
  • …and reduce the amount of saturated fat in your diet. As well as avoiding foods that are high in saturated fat, you can also choose reduced fat or reduced saturate alternatives for dairy products like full fat milk or butter. As for red meat and meat products, you could exchange these for poultry or lean meat, which are lower in saturated fat. You can find more ideas to help you reduce the saturated fat in your diet in our simple swaps guide .
So, if you want to work on your cholesterol levels, swapping saturated fats for unsaturated fats is a great way to start. Why not download our Cholesterol Lowering Starter Kit and make a start today?

*Replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats in the diet has been shown to lower blood cholesterol**.

**High cholesterol is a risk factor in the development of coronary heart disease. There are many risk factors for coronary heart disease and it is important to take care of all of them to reduce the overall risk of it.