Guide to Fats

—by Eleanor Mayfield
Source: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Once upon a time, we didn't know anything about fat except that it made foods tastier. We cooked our food in lard or shortening. We spread butter on our breakfast toast and plopped sour cream on our baked potatoes. Farmers bred their animals to produce milk with high butterfat content and meat “marbled” with fat because that was what most people wanted to eat.

But ever since word got out that diets high in fat are related to heart disease, things have become more complicated.

Fats and Fatty Acids

Fats are a group of chemical compounds that contain fatty acids. Energy is stored in the body mostly in the form of fat. Fat is needed in the diet to supply essential fatty acids, substances essential for growth but not produced by the body itself.

There are three main types of fatty acids: saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. All fatty acids are molecules composed mostly of carbon and hydrogen atoms. A saturated fatty acid has the maximum possible number of hydrogen atoms attached to every carbon atom. It is therefore said to be “saturated” with hydrogen atoms.

Some fatty acids are missing one pair of hydrogen atoms in the middle of the molecule. This gap is called an “unsaturation” and the fatty acid is said to be “monounsaturated” because it has one gap. Fatty acids that are missing more than one pair of hydrogen atoms are called “polyunsaturated.”

Saturated fatty acids are mostly found in foods of animal origin. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids are mostly found in foods of plant origin and some seafoods. Polyunsaturated fatty acids are of two kinds, omega-3 or omega-6. Scientists tell them apart by where in the molecule the “unsaturations,” or missing hydrogen atoms, occur.

Recently a new term has been added to the fat lexicon: trans fatty acids. These are byproducts of partial hydrogenation, a process in which some of the missing hydrogen atoms are put back into polyunsaturated fats.

Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats do not promote the formation of artery-clogging fatty deposits the way saturated fats do.

Cholesterol

Cholesterol is sort of a “cousin” of fat. Both fat and cholesterol belong to a larger family of chemical compounds called lipids. All the cholesterol the body needs is made by the liver. It is used to build cell membranes and brain and nerve tissues. Cholesterol also helps the body produce steroid hormones needed for body regulation, including processing food, and bile acids needed for digestion.

People don't need to consume dietary cholesterol because the body can make enough cholesterol for its needs. Only foods of animal origin contain cholesterol.

Cholesterol is transported in the bloodstream in large molecules of fat and protein called lipoproteins. Cholesterol carried in low-density lipoproteins is called LDL-cholesterol; most cholesterol is of this type. Cholesterol carried in high-density lipoproteins is called HDL-cholesterol.

LDL-cholesterol and HDL-cholesterol act differently in the body. A high level of LDL-cholesterol in the blood increases the risk of fatty deposits forming in the arteries, which in turn increases the risk of a heart attack. Thus, LDL-cholesterol has been dubbed “bad” cholesterol.

On the other hand, an elevated level of HDL-cholesterol seems to have a protective effect against heart disease. For this reason, HDL-cholesterol is often called “good” cholesterol.

Triglycerides and VLDL

Triglyceride is another form in which fat is transported through the blood to the body tissues. Most of the body's stored fat is in the form of triglycerides. Another lipoprotein—very low-density lipoprotein, or VLDL—has the job of carrying triglycerides in the blood.

It is not clear whether high levels of triglycerides alone increase an individual's risk of heart disease. However, they may be an important clue that someone is at risk of heart disease for other reasons.


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