All About Types of Fats
The word “fat” is very common in our vocabulary. We use the word almost regularly, especially because it has multiple interchangeable meanings. But unfortunately, over the years, the word “fat” has developed negative connotations. People associate negatively with the word – in fact, the word fat is now used for something that needs to be avoided and is extremely harmful. This is one reason why when it comes to food, most people are just scared of fat and try to avoid it at all costs.
There is no doubt that the science behind fats is tricky, which is why it has become such a negative word. But it’s important to understand that fat isn’t a scary word; if anything, it is actually an essential part of our body and should also be of our meals. However, the key here is the type of fat you are consuming.
Yes, you got that right; most people do not know that there are actually different types of fats. And while it’s true that some types of fats are actually harmful to all health and must be avoided at all times, there are also some types of fats that are beneficial to our health in moderate quantities. And this is exactly what we are going to be discussing today.
What Are Fats?
Fats, also known as lipids, are one of the major macromolecules in our body and are found in our food. Fats are organic molecules that contain hydrocarbons – each fat molecule is made of fatty acids and glycerin, and it is a three-molecule structure that together makes “triglyceride. Triglyceride is also interchangeably used to describe fat molecules.
As we mentioned above, fat is an essential component of our body. In fact, our body needs an adequate amount of fat in our body and in our diet as well for it to function properly. There are many reasons why we need fats in our body, so before we get to the different types of fat, let’s talk about the importance of fat.
What is the Importance of Fat in Our Body?
Fats are an essential nutrient in our diet and extremely vital for our body to function regularly. Fat serves various roles in our body, such as:
- Dietary fats we consume help absorb fat-soluble minerals and vitamins (A, D, E and K) in the body. And this is one reason why balanced diets that involve an adequate amount of fats are preferred.
- Fat tissues stored in our body help with body temperature regulation and provide insulation to the vital organs. Fat tissues are one reason our body’s internal temperature can remain warm but also doesn’t overheat.
- Fat cells and tissues present in the body allow energy storage as glucose molecules eventually turn into fat cells and fat tissue that are then stored in our body. These cells then help with metabolism as they break down to provide energy for metabolism.
- They protect our organs and form a protective layer around our most vital organs.
- Fats are a building component in cell formation. Cells have three major parts: the nucleus, cell membrane and cytoplasm. Fats, or we should say lipids, are the fundamental building block for different parts of the cell. Phospholipids, which are lipid molecules, make up the cell membranes.
Understanding Dietary Fats
When talking about fats, people usually face slight confusion because, as we said earlier, the word fat has various meanings – or you can say fat itself can be classified in various ways. As we were discussing above, there are fat molecules present in our body (we also refer to them as lipids). There is the fat we find in our body (the semi-solid or liquid substance usually used for burning and cooking) and lastly, there is the fat we consume and get from our food – also known as dietary fat.
This can become a huge discussion if we begin to talk about the different types of fats for all the categories; for example, there are various types of fat molecules (say phospholipids or glycolipids) that make up our body. But that’s not our topic of discussion today. Today, we will be talking about dietary fats – the type of nutrients we get from the food we consume.
For decades now, fat has been considered the culprit behind heart diseases, weight gain and obesity and even diseases like diabetes. While there is no doubt that fat consumption impacts the consequences of these problems, it’s important to note that fat alone is not the culprit of these problems. And most importantly, not all types of fats are problematic here – and this brings us to the types of dietary fats.
Types of Dietary Fats
There are three major types of dietary fats:
- Saturated fats
- Unsaturated fats
- Trans fats
All three types of fats are found in various foods we consume on a daily basis, but some of these fats are healthy for us, while others are a complete no-no.
1. Unsaturated Fats
Unsaturated fats are one the major types of fats present in the diet. Unsaturated fatty acids are defined by their chemical structure; they are hydrocarbons that are made of carbon chains with one or more double bonds.
This allows them to be soft or liquid at room temperature (such as oil). Unlike the other types of diet, unsaturated fatty acids are actually considered healthy for us and are also commonly known as “good fats.” The main reason behind this is that unsaturated fats help maintain healthy levels of HDL (high-density lipoprotein), which is the good cholesterol that our body needs.
Unsaturated fats can be further divided into two common types: monounsaturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids.
Monounsaturated Fatty Acids (MUFAs)
As the name suggests, monounsaturated fatty acids have only one unsaturated chemical bond in their structure – each fat molecule is bonded to only one hydrogen atom. They are also liquid at room temperature but can solidify when you refrigerate them.
When consumed in moderate quantities, monounsaturated fatty acids can be beneficial to us. Monounsaturated fatty acids help lower LDL (low-density lipoprotein), aka bad cholesterol levels in our body, and in turn, help maintain HDL levels. In fact, it was researched that a diet rich in monounsaturated fats may also help in reducing the risk of heart diseases – given that you consume them in small amounts and cut down on other fats instead.
You can find monounsaturated fat in the following foods:
- Nuts or nut butter (e.g., peanut butter)
- Olives and olive oil
- Avocados and avocado oil
- Canola oils or vegetable oils
Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFAs)
Another type of unsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fats, are fatty acids that have numerous unsaturated chemical bonds. This means many (or poly) spaces in this molecule are not saturated with hydrogen atoms. Polyunsaturated fats are one of the most beneficial fat molecules for us.
Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids that help keep our heart healthy, help improve brain functioning and memory, are good for eye health and reduce triglycerides in the blood, which in turn helps avoid fat accumulation in the arteries. Other than that, omega-6 fatty acids are also a type of polyunsaturated fatty acids that, when eaten in moderation, are good for your heart but, in high amounts, can cause inflammation. You can find omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids in processed foods and vegetable oils.
Food sources for polyunsaturated fatty acids are:
- Nuts and seeds
- Pastured eggs
- Oily such as mackerel, salmon, trout
- Specific oils like sunflower, soybean, safflower and grapeseed oil
2. Saturated Fats
Quite the opposite of unsaturated fats, saturated fats are fat molecules that have no double bonds. This is why the biggest difference between saturated and unsaturated fatty acids lies in their chemical structure. Saturated fatty acids have single bonds in between their molecules, and carbon atoms are completely covered up (or saturated) with hydrogen atoms. This is why saturated fats tend to be solid at room temperature (such as margarine and ghee).
Unlike unsaturated fats, saturated fats are not considered a healthy source of fats. They are considered unhealthy because they can significantly impact your cholesterol levels by increasing the level of harmful LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol in your body. This cholesterol is extremely dangerous for your heart because this is the type of fat that accumulates in the blood vessels and leads to the blockage of arteries in your heart or other parts of the body. This increases the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, as well as experiencing a stroke or a heart attack.
Most dieticians and health experts suggest people minimize their consumption of saturated fats and replace them with unsaturated fats. Since cutting them out of your diet is almost impossible – hence, AHA (American Health Association) recommends that saturated fat intake should be no more than 13 grams per day.
However, there is no doubt saturated fats are the type of fats that are not good for your health. A comprehensive research analysis from 2020 concluded that the higher the intake of saturated fats (from coconut oil), the higher the LDL level – as compared to those people who consumed vegetable oil instead.
Food sources that contain saturated fats are:
- Coconut and palm oil
- Butter and margarine
- Ice cream
- High-fat red meat
- Whole milk
3. Trans Fats
The last but the most dangerous type of fats is trans fats. Small amounts of trans fats occur naturally in animal-based food products like milk and meat. But for the most part, trans fats are manufactured artificially; they are made in an industrial process that allows companies to add hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils.
This hydrogenation process causes this liquid to solidify at room temperature; hence, allowing foods to last longer. Moreover, this gives the food more texture and a better satisfying taste. However, what it doesn’t do is make the fat any less dangerous, for it, in fact, makes it extremely harmful to our overall health.
Trans fat, undoubtedly, tastes really good, but it is the unhealthiest of all the other types of fat. It significantly increases the LDL cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein), which increases your risk of developing heart disease and diabetes. In fact, it was once identified that the consumption of trans fat could be linked to up to 500,00 deaths caused by cardiovascular issues annually. And on the other hand, it decreases the levels of HDL cholesterol in the body.
Hence, unlike saturated fats that are not good for our health but still can be consumed, trans fats are the type of fat that should be avoided as much as possible. In fact, according to AHA, the consumption of trans fat should not exceed more than 5 to 6% of a person’s total calorie intake of a day.
Foods that contain trans fat:
- Fried foods like French fries
- Pizza dough
- Baked goods like doughnuts. Pastries, pies and biscuits
- Crackers and cookies
- Packaged food items
- Stick margarine
Fats are a vital nutrient that we all need to add to our diet. Not only is it totally impossible to completely cut out fats from our diet, but it is also unhealthy. However, that being said, it is important to be knowledgeable about the different types of fats so you are well aware of what you should consume and what you should avoid.
When it comes to various types of fats, the information above tells us that we should increase the amount of unsaturated fat we consume as it is healthy and beneficial for us. But at the same time, saturated fats should only be consumed in moderation to make sure they don’t end up harming our bodies. And lastly, trans fats are the ones you should immediately remove from your diet. Avoid them at all times, and you will see how healthy you feel!