The Differences between Saturated Fat, Trans Fat, and Unsaturated Fat

Fat Facts - The Good, the Bad, and the Truth

Dietary fat should not be feared. In fact, fat is essential to a healthy, nourishing diet. Fats are indeed a very dense source of calories. There are nine calories in one gram of fat. For comparison, carbohydrates and proteins have only four calories per gram. Regardless, this does not mean that eating fats will make you fat. Let me explain.

In the video below, Amanda Haney breaks down what you need to know about saturated, trans, and unsaturated fats. 

Continue reading for more information. 

Good vs bad fat

First off, eating the right amount of calories will help you achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Weight gain happens if you eat more calories than you burn. Weight loss happens if you burn more calories than you consume. You can lose weight by following a high-fat diet, and you can lose weight by following a low-fat diet. Overall, you will shed weight as long as you’re burning more calories than you consume.  

That being said, fat is an essential part of losing weight because it digests slower than carbohydrates and proteins. The slower digestion helps prevent overeating and enables you to feel fuller for longer. 

Fat also adds flavor and texture to foods, partly why many of us crave those rich and creamy foods. 

With this in mind, not all fats are created equal. There are healthy fats and unhealthy fats, and being able to differentiate between the two will help make a balanced diet enjoyable and healthy. 

This article will discuss the differences between saturated fat, trans fat, and unsaturated fat.

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Steak is an example of a food high in saturated fatSaturated Fat

The name “saturated fat” comes from its chemical structure. Saturated fats have zero double bonds, which means that each carbon molecule is “saturated” with single-bonded hydrogen molecules. That was probably a bit technical. Keep reading!

Saturated fats are solid at room temperature, found in animal products (such as whole milk, creams, cheeses, butter), high-fat meats (like pork and steak), and vegetable products (like coconut oil and palm kernel oil).

When you consume saturated fats from animal products, they can build up in your arteries, increase your cholesterol, and increase your heart disease risk. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 6% of your daily calorie intake from saturated fat.

For example, if you consume 2,000 calories per day, only 120 calories (or 6%) should come from saturated fat. That’s not very many calories!

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Margarine is an example of a food high in trans fat

Trans Fat

There are two types of trans fats found in the food supply: naturally occurring and artificial. Naturally occurring trans fats are found in small amounts in the fatty parts of meat and dairy products.

Artificial trans fats are created during food processing. Oils, specifically vegetable oils, are processed by food manufacturers to be more like saturated fats. This process transforms healthy oil into a rigid structure. The rigid structure prolongs shelf-life and makes the oil less likely to go rancid, which is an appealing feature for food manufacturers.

Artificial trans fats are commonly found in fried foods (like doughnuts), baked goods (like pie crusts, biscuits, and frozen pizza), and condiments (like stick margarine and non-dairy coffee creamer).

If the ingredient list of a particular packaged food includes “partially hydrogenated oil”, the product contains trans fats.

Like saturated fat, diets high in trans fats increase cholesterol and heart disease risk. As a result, the American Heart Association recommends avoiding trans fat as best as possible.

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Avocado is an example of food high in unsaturated fatUnsaturated fat

Unlike saturated fats, unsaturated fats contain double bonds and are not fully saturated with hydrogen. This creates kinks in the chemical structure. These kinks allow unsaturated fats to be liquid at room temperature.

Unsaturated fats include monounsaturated fats (like oleic acid found in olive oil) and polyunsaturated fats (like omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids). When part of a balanced diet, unsaturated fats are considered “healthy fats” because they can lower cholesterol levels, decrease heart disease risk and type 2 diabetes, and improve inflammation.

Foods high in unsaturated fats include olives, avocados, seafood, nuts (like walnuts), oils (like olive oil), and flaxseeds. I recommend replacing saturated fat and trans fat rich-foods with unsaturated fat-rich food. In doing so, you can improve your health and reduce your risk of disease.

In summary, the amount and type of fat in your diet can play an essential role in your overall health, including reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, inflammation, and even athletic performance. If you are interested in incorporating more healthy fats into your diet, contact your registered dietitian today to learn how to create a meal plan that works for you!

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Hi, my name is Amanda Haney. I am a registered dietitian, board-certified nutrition support clinician, Cal State Long Beach alumnae, and former pediatric clinical dietitian. Currently, I am working as a project manager at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. As a clinical dietitian or in my current role, my passion is working in a diverse setting with a variety of teams in order to improve patient outcomes and achieve better health for the families in my community. I became a dietitian because I love food and I love medicine. There is so much misinformation about nutrition in the media, so I enjoy creating educational content that makes nutrition simple and to make your health goals achievable. In my free time, I love soaking up the beauty at the beach, riding my bike, staying active, cooking, and, most of all, spending time with my family and friends!