Fats can be saturated or unsaturated, depending on how many hydrogen atoms link to each carbon in their chemical chains. The more hydrogens attached to the chain, the more saturated the fatty acid will be. If there are hydrogen atoms missing, the fatty acid is considered unsaturated. Unsaturated fatty acids fall into two categories: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. All foods with fats contain a varying mixture of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are considered to be more health beneficial than saturated fats or trans fats.
Monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) are fatty acids that are missing one hydrogen pair on their chain. They are associated with lowering LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol while at the same time increasing the production of the 'good' cholesterol, HDL cholesterol. You find monounsaturated fats in vegetable oils like canola, peanut and olive oil, as well as in nuts. These fats are usually liquid at room temperature.
Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) are missing two or more hydrogen pairs on their fatty acid chains. They trigger lower blood/serum cholesterol as well as lower LDL and HDL production. You can find these fats in vegetable oils like corn, sesame, sunflower, safflower and soybean, as well as in fatty fish. These fats are usually liquid at room temperature.
Omega-3 fatty acids are also polyunsaturated fats. These fatty acids are found primarily in seafood, like high fat mackerel, albacore tuna, sardines, salmon, lake trout, as well as in flaxseed oil, walnuts, soybean oil and canola oil. Your body uses the alpha-linolenic acid found in the non-meat sources and converts it to omega-3s. Omega-3s are associated with improving immunity, rheumatoid arthritis, vision, brain function and heart health. Specifically, omega-3s are linked to lowering triglyceride levels in the body and total cholesterol levels. It is recommended that you consume omega-3 foods frequently. Consider making fish a regular part of your diet, and consume fatty fish twice per week for omega-3 benefits.
Omega-6 fatty acids found in vegetable oils are also PUFAs. These are also associated with reducing cardiovascular disease risk by lowering LDL cholesterol levels. However, they may also lower HDL levels. Main sources for omega-6s are vegetable oils, nuts and some whole-grain products.
These fats should fill up most of your daily recommended needs at about 20-35 percent of your total caloric intake. MUFAs and PUFAs both provide about the same amount of calories as any other fat, 120 calories per tablespoon, or 9 calories per gram. Additionally, both do not contain any cholesterol and are often the largest source for vitamin E in the diet. However, it can be a challenge to tell which foods have PUFAs, MUFAs, omega-3s or 6s because they are not required to be listed separately on labels, although some companies do so voluntarily.
Emily DeLacey MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian and currently working in Jamaica as a HIV/ AIDS Prevention Specialist. She attended Central Washington University for her Bachelor's Degree in Science and Dietetics and continued on after her internship to Kent State University for her Master's Degree in Science and Nutrition, with a focus on public health and advocacy. She served as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi 2012-2014 working as a Community Health Advisor in a rural village, immersing in the joys of life without electricity or running water. She has been to 20+ countries and 47 of the 50 states in the US. Traveling, adventuring and experiencing new cultures has made her a passionate advocate for the equality of nutrition and wellness for all people.