The difference between unsaturated fatty acids and saturated fatty acids involves the chemical structure of these fats. Indiana University notes that while saturated fats contain carbons saturated with hydrogen atoms, unsaturated fats consist of carbon atoms that form double bonds and are not saturated with hydrogen atoms. Polyunsaturated fats are a type of unsaturated fatty acid.
Omega-3s and Omega-6s
Two main types of polyunsaturated fats are omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Both of these polyunsaturated fats are classified as essential fatty acids because your body can't make them and has to get them from your diet. Examples of omega-3 fatty acids include alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Linolenic acid (LA) and arachidonic acid (AA), are examples of omega-6 fatty acids. The University of Colorado points out that finding the right balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids -- which is about two to four times more omega-6s than omega-3s -- benefits your health, but getting too much omega-6s and not enough omega-3s may contribute to heart disease, arthritis and diabetes.
Potential Health Benefits
Replacing saturated and trans fats in your diet with heart-healthy mono- and poly-unsaturated fats reduces your risk for developing heart disease and stroke. More specifically, polyunsaturated fats help lower your bad blood cholesterol levels, notes the American Heart Association. Omega-3 fatty acids are crucial for brain development in infants and children and may help prevent cognitive decline in adulthood. A study published in 2014 in Cerebral Cortex found that taking 2.2 grams of omega-3s from fish oil daily exhibited positive effects on brain function in older adults.
Omega-3 fatty acids are mainly found in fatty fish and some plant-based fats. Examples of foods rich in DHA and EPA include salmon, cod, sardines, herring and anchovies. Algae are plant-based sources of DHA. Foods high in ALA include soybeans, flax seeds, walnuts, and oils made from canola, olive, soybean, flaxseed, pumpkinseed, walnut and hemp.
The University of Colorado notes that omega-6 fatty acid LA is abundant in safflower, corn, soybean, sunflower, cottonseed, peanut and rice bran oils, while AA is present in dairy foods, eggs, peanut oil and meats.
Recommended Daily Intakes
Adequate intake levels for omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids vary by age and gender. The Institute of Medicine suggests adult women consume 1.1 grams of omega-3s daily, pregnant women get at least 1.4 grams, nursing women consume 1.3 grams and men get at least 1.6 grams of omega-3s each day. If you're taking omega-3 fish oil supplements, avoid taking more than 3 grams daily unless your doctor recommends it, suggests MedlinePlus. Adequate intake levels for omega-6 fatty acids are 11 to 12 grams for women, 13 grams during pregnancy and lactation, and 14 to 17 grams of omega-6 fatty acids daily for adult men, notes the Institute of Medicine.
An experienced health, nutrition and fitness writer, Erin Coleman is a registered and licensed dietitian and holds a dietetics degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She also has worked as a clinical dietitian and health educator in outpatient settings. Erin's work is published on popular health websites, such as TheNest.com and J