Unsaturated Fatty Acids: What Are They and Why Are They Important?

Ungesättigte Fettsäuren: Was ist das und wofür sind sie wichtig?

Most people have heard of unsaturated fats before. But what exactly is it? In short, these are fats with many health benefits. Which should not be confused with saturated fatty acids.

You can find the detailed answer here in this article. We will explain to you the advantages of unsaturated fatty acids and what you need to pay attention to. Because unsaturated is not the same as unsaturated! The right balance and the best foods are important to achieve the best possible health effect.

the essentials in brief

  • In the case of unsaturated fatty acids, a distinction is made between a single or multiple bond. Simple bonds are more common in food. It is more difficult to take on multiple bonds.
  • The most important unsaturated fatty acids are omega-3 and omega-6. Which should be found in our body in a ratio of 1 to 5.
  • Trans fats are formed when multiple bonds are heated. These are unhealthy and should be avoided.

Background: What you should know about unsaturated fatty acids

In the following section, the most frequently asked questions are answered in detail. With the aim of providing you with the best possible information for a healthy diet. Starting with the chemical background and health effects. At the end you will find specific foods that are recommended.

What are unsaturated fatty acids and what are they composed of?

Fatty acids are found in many different foods. In biology, a distinction is made between saturated and unsaturated. Both are essential to life and healthy in moderation. Optimally, one-third of the fatty acids are unsaturated. The best known are omega-3 and omega-6, also known as linolenic acid and linoleic acid respectively. (1,2)

These consist of long-chain hydrocarbon compounds that do not have a fixed end. In addition, unsaturated fatty acids have a double bond. A distinction is made here between single and multiple bonds. The number in the omega designations provide information on which carbon atom the first double bond can be found. (1,2)

What types of unsaturated fatty acids are there?

Fatty acids and their degree of saturation are considered a quality feature of fats. The less saturated, the better. In this article, we will focus solely on the unsaturated fats. Which in turn are distinguished between a single or multiple bond:

  • Monounsaturated Fatty Acids (MUFA): This is a single bond. These can be found in oleic and palmitoleic acids. (3)
  • Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA): This is a multiple bond and can be found in α-linolenic, linoleic and arachidonic acid. The two well-known representatives omega-3 and 6 belong to these polyunsaturated fatty acids. (3)

This bond gives information about where the double bond is to be found. As a rule, the polyunsaturated fatty acids are represented less frequently. So watch out for foods with PUFA content. A deficiency can affect your health. (3)

Are unsaturated fatty acids healthy?

Fatty acids are essential for our body. In the right ratio, they are anti-inflammatory and help against many diseases. To name a few: arteriosclerosis, rheumatism and macular degeneration. (2)

Unsaturated fats are healthy fats.

Macular degeneration refers to diseases of the retina. The fatty acids help here, but only in the prevention of eye diseases. They also protect against hearing loss and reduce the risk of depression. (2)

What are omega-3 fatty acids good for in our body?

Omega-3 fatty acids produce anti-inflammatory hormones and thus help against rheumatism, among other things. The acid also has a positive effect on cardiovascular diseases. A positive effect was found particularly in the case of coronary heart disease. This includes diseases of the coronary arteries, such as vascular calcification. The resulting fatal incidents such as heart attacks are demonstrably reduced by omega-3. (1,2)

In addition, it is widely believed that omega-3 is said to lower cholesterol levels. This is only partly true. A study from 2019 shows that treatment with omega-3 only lowers cholesterol in people with diabetes. (4.5)

What are omega-6 fatty acids good for in our body?

Omega-6 lipids are considered to be the precursor of the body's own synthesis to enable the formation of anti-inflammatory hormones. Health benefits on the cardiovascular system have also been found here. However, research focuses mainly on omega-3. (1)

What are omega-9 fatty acids good for in our body?

Many health problems stem from an imbalance between omega-3 and omega-6. Omega-9 helps in this case to balance. Since there are no direct health benefits, the fatty acid is less well known. Nevertheless, it is important to have enough omega-9 for a balanced acid balance. (6)

What are eicosanoids good for in our body?

Eicosanoids are hormone-damaging substances that our body produces from omega-3 and omega-6. The fatty acids are therefore not exclusively healthy. At the same time, eicosanoids help against cardiovascular diseases. (1)

What are trans fats good for in our body?

Trans fats, also known as cis fats, are the exception to the unsaturated fatty acids. Even eicosanoids have a health-promoting function. Trans fats have an unfavorable double bond, the so-called trans bond. These harden fats and thus promote fat storage. The consequences can be obesity and heart disease. (3)

Trans fats are particularly found in industrial foods such as cheese, butter and baked goods. Because these make products last longer or make them particularly easy to spread. Despite their frequent use, these are usually hidden because they do not have to be stated on the packaging. (3.8)

Can the body produce unsaturated fatty acids?

Our body cannot produce so-called essential nutrients such as omega 3 and 6 itself. We have to get this through food. An exception is the conditionally essential omega-9. Here certain other fats must be found in the body so that our body can produce the fatty acid. But these are also absorbed more effectively through food. (1,2,6)

The body cannot produce unsaturated fatty acids.

The situation is different with saturated fatty acids. These are not essential, so the body can make them. Among other things, from sugar and protein. Because saturated fat should be avoided, it is advisable to take care to avoid the build-up of saturated fat in your diet. (3)

Can unsaturated fatty acids make you fat?

In everyday life, any fat is often demonized as fat-maker. But, as is usually the case, the truth is not quite so simple. You gain most weight from saturated fat. These are not only unhealthy, but also bad for your figure. (7)

Lose weight

Unsaturated fat is less fat than saturated fat. (Image source: Diana Polekhina / Unsplash)

In the case of unsaturated fatty acids, a weak association was found between consumption and weight gain. So they don't get in the way of your ideal weight . Trans fats, which are produced when PUFA oils are heated, are dangerous here. Her so-called trans attachment is unhealthy and hits her hips. However, your body also needs a certain amount of fat to burn. How much exactly does the basal metabolic rate tell you. (7)

How many unsaturated fatty acids does the body consume per day?

First, it's important to note that today's society eats too much fat. We get most fats in the form of triglycerides, also known as neutral fat. But free fatty acids, phospholipids and plant sterols also transport fat. Another known and despised source of fat is cholesterol. (8th)

These transported fats consist of 45% saturated fatty acids, which our body can also produce on its own. Which is why they should be avoided. Another 60% are unsaturated fatty acids. Of these, 45% are MUFA fats, i.e. fatty acids with a single bond. At 15%, PUFA fats are clearly the least represented. These include multiple bonds such as omega-3 or omega-6. (8th)

How many unsaturated fatty acids does the body need per day?

The daily requirement depends on the physical exertion. If you work on a construction site, you need more unsaturated fatty acids, as with an office job.

Omega-3 requirements increase in pregnant women . After all, the body needs additional oils, vitamins and minerals to provide for the child. You can find out exactly how the need changes depending on the life situation in the following table: (8)

life situation fat percentage Omega-3 percentage Omega-6 percentage
Person without physical exertion: 30 2.5 0.5
Person with physical exertion: 31.5 2.6 0.53
Pregnant and lactating women: 30-35 2.5 0.5

Exactly how much fat you need depends on your energy needs. In general, it can be said that you should cover less than 30% of your energy requirements with fat. Of this maximum 29% fat, 1% should be linoleic acid and 0.2% linolenic acid. As a result, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is approximately 5 to 1. (8)

Does it make sense to supplement with unsaturated fatty acids?

Nobody can live without fatty acids, but the content in the body is difficult to determine. This is only possible via the omega-3 value, which should be over 8%. But in 2019, 76% of Germans had a deficiency! This number is alarmingly high, especially since even deaths can be traced back to a deficiency. (5.12)

Since our body cannot produce unsaturated fatty acids itself, it has to be supplied through food. This is particularly important for the development of the child during pregnancy. Especially TUFA oils, which are less represented in food, are often neglected in the nutrition plan. In this case, it is worth turning to dietary supplements. (8th)

What types of unsaturated fat supplements are there?

Supplements focus on the multiple bonds as these are less common in food. Undoubtedly, most offer omega-3 capsules. The reason lies in the poor availability in food. But there are also omega-6 supplements, since more fatty acids are required from this acid than from omega-3. Below you will find a clear table of the various offers:

supplements Omega 3 Omega 6 Omega 3-6-9
Purpose: Useful for low consumption of foods containing omega-3. Useful for low consumption of omega-6 foods. Especially when eating more omega-3. Useful if you want an all-round package. All components are present, which is particularly recommended for an otherwise unhealthy diet.
Danger: Less omega-3 than omega-6 is needed. Here you have to be careful to stay with a 1:5 ratio. Omega-3 is harder to find in food than omega-6. If too little omega-6 is ingested through food, omega-3 is probably also lacking. In this case, pure omega-6 supplementation is not recommended. Make sure that the different omega fatty acids are dosed in the right ratio.

There is also the option of supplements with seeds or legumes. These usually contain many unsaturated fatty acids and other desirable minerals. Here, the dosage is often opaque. In any case, study the label beforehand to find out which omega substances are present and in what dosage.

However, if certain additives are desired, two flaps can be struck with one. A well-known example is flaxseed supplements. Depending on the provider, these contain additional vitamin E or magnesium nitrate.

What are the side effects of unsaturated fatty acid supplementation?

If there is an imbalance between omega-3 and omega-6, try to balance omega-9 first. If the difference is too big, side effects can occur. Fat deposits can form and the desired effects on the heart and circulatory system do not occur. (8th)

Instead, increased bleeding is possible in combination with aspirin. In the case of a high overdose, even strokes are conceivable. In addition, diabetics suffer from poorer glucose control. Depending on which medication is being taken at the same time, additional side effects may occur. (6)

But it doesn't have to be such serious side effects. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), minor side effects such as bloating, nausea, and diarrhea are possible. An overdose does not mean a stroke. However, you should consult a doctor even with minor side effects. (9)

In which foods are unsaturated fatty acids found?

Unsaturated fatty acids are found in a wide variety of foods. We eat many of them every day, while others are not very well integrated into our food chain. Or have you ever cooked with whale oil, which contains linoleic acid? At least not us. It is also not necessary, because fortunately there are many alternatives. For example, soybean and peanut oils have more linoleic acids than whale oil. (11)

In the following subsections you will find an overview of food categories with a lot of unsaturated fatty acids. We want to enable you to improve your nutrition plan. Most foods are easy to incorporate. They usually receive little attention in our kitchen. You're sure to find something that you haven't given much thought to that is perfect for a healthy dinner .


Linseed oil, rapeseed oil and olive oil contain many unsaturated fatty acids. Sunflower and safflower oil also have these healthy oils. However, the body absorbs too many omega-6 fatty acids through the latter, which can promote inflammation. It is important to pay attention to a balanced omega-3 and omega-6 base. (1)


Oils are important sources of unsaturated fatty acids. (Image source: Dimitri Karastelev / Unsplash)

It is also worth paying attention to the number of double bonds. Olive oil, for example, is monosaturated, while rapeseed oil is polysaturated and contains many α-linolenic acids. But especially saturated animal fats should be avoided. Like coconut and palm oil, these are prone to fatty deposits. These in turn promote many diseases such as heart attacks. (10,11,13)


Polyunsaturated fatty acids are found in various types of fish, such as salmon, mackerel or herring. A particularly large amount of omega-3 can be found in marine animals. For this reason, it is recommended to eat a fish dish twice a week. Whether as a herring roll or sushi. (3.10)

The omega-3 is also available as an oil, which is why drugstores offer fish oil for drinking. Of course, this can also be found as cooking oil. In Thailand, for example, oyster oil is a popular and healthy flavor enhancer. (3.10)


High-fat meat from ruminants in particular contains many trans fats. As already explained, these are unhealthy. Consumption is not recommended, especially in combination with the poorly digestible proteins in meat. Vegetable fats are better, these also come with well-tolerated proteins. (3)

Dairy products

Processing milk produces many trans fats. This happens during hydrogenation, where unsaturated fatty acids become trans fats. This also takes place during digestion in the stomach of the ruminant. (13)

In Europe, we get most of these unhealthy fats from cheese. But they can also be found in butter and unprocessed milk. For this reason, you should watch your milk consumption. Nevertheless, current research assumes that small amounts of dairy products have no harmful effects. (13)


All nuts are high in omega-9 fatty acids. Well-known representatives include cashew nuts, almonds and pistachios. Their proportion of monounsaturated fatty acids is 20-50g per 100g. With 5-20g, 100g each, sesame and walnuts occupy the last places. Accordingly, it is advisable to sprinkle dishes with a little sesame and to snack on nuts instead of biscuits. (3)

Can unsaturated fatty acids be heated?

Here again, a distinction must be made between MUFA and PUFA fats. Monosaturated fats tend to be more heat resistant than polysaturated fats. Olive oil or HOLL rapeseed oil are particularly suitable. HOLL stands for High Oleic Low Linolenic, which means a particularly high heat tolerance. (13)

Of course, rapeseed and olive oil are also suitable for cold consumption. But polysaturated fatty acids such as flaxseed oil are only suitable for cold dishes. Because if the long carbon chains with double bonds are heated, they break. At the same time, trans fats are produced, which should be avoided. (13)


In summary, unsaturated fatty acids are high-quality fats. If you want to reduce your fat consumption, you should only do so with saturated fat. Otherwise there is a risk of a lack of unsaturated substances. In addition, the healthy fats play a minor role in weight gain and are safe to eat.

The only thing to consider is the ratio between omega-3 and omega-6 in order to achieve the best possible health-promoting effect. Trans fats should also be avoided. These are found in industrially processed foods, as well as in meat and milk. In addition, these arise when heating polysaturated fatty acids. Which is why it is important to cook with heat-resistant oils. If you pay attention to these aspects, your body will thank you.


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