The Important Fatty Plants You Should Know: Saturated, Mono, Poly

By Marni Wasserman

Saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats are the three most common forms of fat that you encounter in the plant world. Fats are classified by their density and the number of carbons in a chain. Without getting too complicated, the more carbons a fat has, the more saturated it is. Here’s a little breakdown, starting with the most saturated of fats:

  • Saturated fats:

    • Don’t normally go rancid, even when heated for cooking

    • Are made in your body from carbohydrates

    • Constitute at least 50 percent of your cell membranes, giving cells stiffness and integrity

    • Are needed for calcium to be effectively incorporated into the skeletal system

    • Protect the liver from alcohol and other toxins

    • Enhance immune function

    • Are needed for the proper use of essential fatty acids (EFAs)

    • Plant-based sources: coconut oil and palm oil

  • Monounsaturated fats:

    • Tend to be liquid at room temperature

    • Don’t go rancid easily and can be used in cooking at moderate temperatures

    • Plant-based sources: olive oil, almonds, pecans, cashews, peanuts, and avocados

  • Polyunsaturated fats:

    • Contain omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids

    • Are liquid even when refrigerated

    • Should never be heated

    • Plant-based sources: walnuts, chia, hemp, and flax

Most “politically correct” nutrition (meaning what the government wants you to eat) is based on the assumption that you should reduce and ideally eliminate your intake of fats — particularly saturated fats — from animal sources because they’re to blame for things like heart disease.

But don’t let your plant-based diet lull you into a false sense of security. It’s not so much the saturated fats that are to blame but rather the processed food of today’s modern industry and all of those trans fats hidden in most products.

That means even though you’re eating plant-based, you still are at risk for heart disease and other health complications if you consume too much margarine, shortening, refined oils and sugars, and processed foods in general.