The ins and outs of unsaturated fats

Unsaturated fats are considered the ‘healthy’ fats and they’re important to include as part of a healthy diet. These fats help reduce the risk of high blood cholesterol levels and have other health benefits when they replace saturated fats in the diet.

Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature, unlike saturated fats that are solid at room temperature. Healthy unsaturated fats come in two main forms, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. These differ in their chemical structure and they have slightly different health benefits as a result.

Monounsaturated fats

Food sources of monounsaturated fats include:

  • Olive oil
  • Canola oil
  • Peanut oil
  • Nuts
  • Avocados.

Replacing unhealthy saturated fats with monounsaturated fats has a cholesterol lowering effect.

Polyunsaturated fats

Polyunsaturated fats can be divided into two main groups known as omega-3 fats and omega-6 fats. These two types of fats have slightly different health benefits.

Omega-3 fats

Omega-3 fats have been shown to be protective against heart disease as they help lower LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) levels, blood triglyceride levels and blood pressure. Omega-3 fats are found in:

  • Oily fish such as salmon, sardines and blue-eye travella
  • Eggs and meats such as lean beef and chicken
  • Plant sources including linseed/flaxseed, walnuts, soybeans and canola oil.

Research has found that people who have a higher intake of fish have a lower risk of developing heart disease2. Fish and other animal sources contain different types of omega-3 fats compared to plant sources. Animal sources have been shown to have more benefits for cardiovascular health than plant sources of omega-3.

How much should I be having?

Even though fish sources of omega-3’s have great benefits for heart health, pregnant and breastfeeding women must not consume more than the recommended amounts of fish due to the risk of consuming too much mercury.

The Heart Foundation recommends adults have 500mg of omega-3 (marine source) everyday to reduce their risk of heart disease. This can be achieved by consuming 2-3 serves of 150g of oily fish a week.

For people who already have heart disease, The Heart Foundation recommends having about 1,000mg of omega-3 fats every day.

Omega-6 Fats

Omega-6 fats have been shown to decrease the risk of heart disease when they are consumed in place of saturated and trans fats. Omega-6 fat sources include:

  • Margarine spreads
  • Sunflower, soybean, sesame oils
  • Nuts (such as walnuts, pecans, brazil and pine nuts)
  • Sunflower seeds.

Today, most people don’t really have trouble getting enough omega-6 fats from their diet. Australians generally need to focus more on improving their intake of omega-3 fats to ensure their diet contains a healthy balance of omega 6 and omega 3 fats.

An Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) can provide individual dietary advice on the most appropriate types of fat to eat and how much you need each day. An APD can also teach you how to read food labels to help you choose the best foods for you and your family.