The terms saturated vs unsaturated fat refers to their chemical structures. All fats are made of smaller molecules - glycerol and fatty acids. But saturated fats tend to be saturated with hydrogen molecules whereas unsaturated fats have a double bond. This changes how the fat is processed by the body.
What do fats do?
The chemistry and the type of fat makes a different in how that nutrient is used by our body. All fats are turned into lipids and are later repackaged as lipoproteins to help our body:
We get these benefits from all fats - not just the "healthy" ones.
Fats that we eat do NOT become body fat. Dietary fat is very dense - it has the highest energy per gram (9kcal/g) compared to carbs and protein (4 kcal/g). This is great for anyone who needs a lot of calories but has a small appetite (eg, infants, toddlers, children, athletes, older adults, people going through cancer treatments). Fats are crucial for the brain development of children and adolescents. Additionally, fat is satisfying and digests slowly which reduces our cravings for sweets.
Fat is not the enemy.
The only real danger of dietary fat is when we eat an imbalanced amount OR inadequate fat. That can lead to changes in cholesterol production.
How much do I need?
In general, our bodies thrive when fats are at least 25% of our calories. For a 2000 calorie diet, that's at least 55 grams of fat per day (of any type of fat).
Most foods with dietary fat are a combination of saturated and unsaturated fats. The percentage of saturated and unsaturated fat varies. It's best if most of the fat we eat is primarily unsaturated but it's impossible (and unnecessary) to strictly avoid saturated fats.
What should I eat?
I don't recommend anyone start trying to count the number of grams of fat they eat each day. Additionally, just because a food is higher in saturated fat does NOT mean it needs to be avoided! The "best" choices depend on eating preferences and styles.
In general the goals are to:
It's about balancing your overall food choices. Here are some of the most common food questions I get in clinic.
When it comes to butter vs margarine, it depends on your overall diet. 1 T of regular butter comes in at 7 grams of saturated fat (1/2 of what you need in a day). However, if you don't eat much total saturated fat (and don't eat much butter), there's nothing wrong with regular butter. However, if you love putting that butter flavor on everything and/or want to keep other high fat animal products in your life, you may consider switching to a TRANS FAT FREE margarine.
First off, nuts are an excellent source of fat but not a high source or protein. Second, there are benefits to every nut. From a type of fat perspective, almonds and walnuts have higher amounts of unsaturated fats - particularly omega 3s. However, they're also more expensive making them not accessible to everyone. Don't be too quit to rule out peanuts as a great source of fat.
Whole milk or whole fat yogurt is rarely a deal breaker for a healthy diet UNLESS you're drinking more than 4 glasses a day (or the rest of your diet is very high in saturated fat). Additionally, having fat in milk allows your body to absorb more vitamin D (and calcium!).
Finally there's meat. All meat has saturated fat. The leaner the meat, the less saturated fat it has. In general from highest to lowest saturated fat:
Moral of the story...
Dietary fat is essential for the body and does so much for our health. It's best if we get most of our fat from plants and fish but that doesn't mean we need to avoid fat from animals - just don't go overboard.
Stay nourished friends!
DISCLAIMER: The writing here is for informational and educational purposes only. It is NOT a substitute for individual care. Your needs may vary. or individual support, please contact a provider.
Please note it's been a number of years since I have updated these posts. The content and philosophies may have changed as I've grown as a provider. Please reach out with questions or concerns.
Dietitian, personal trainer, mother, wife, runner, and endurance athlete supporting well-being, one bit and bite at a time