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Difference between Saturated and Unsaturated Fats
- Saturated and unsaturated fats are different because of the arrangement of their molecular chains
- Omega-3 fatty acids which are found in fish are considered polyunsaturated fat
- Lowering cholesterol levels means cutting out saturated fat and trans fatty acids, a type of structurally altered unsaturated fat
You’ve probably heard lots of advice on avoiding fats to improve your health. You may have seen phrases like saturated and unsaturated fats thrown around in the discussion. But do you know the difference between the two and which ones you want to avoid, especially if you’re interested in lowering cholesterol levels.
The Chemical Side of Fats
When we think about saturated and unsaturated fats, we rarely think of them as chains of molecules. A molecule is a stable unit containing at least two atoms. Water, for example, is a molecule because it is made up of one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms. Any type of fat is actually made from chains of molecules (one carbon and two hydrogen atoms each). But not all of these chains are created equally and that’s where the difference comes into the picture.
With saturated fats, the molecules are connected with a single bond so they are tightly packed together with no gaps between the molecules. On the other hand, molecules in unsaturated fat are connected by double bonds and that causes spaces to form between the molecules.
Why does this matter? Without gaps in the chain, saturated fats are more easily able to pack together in the body. When they enter the bloodstream like this, they end up causing higher levels of bad cholesterol (LDL). The opposite is true with unsaturated fats which can help increase the levels of good cholesterol (HDL).
Typically, saturated fat is going to be a solid because it has tightly packed molecules. Unsaturated fats are normally liquid. Butter is an example of saturated fat while olive oil would be an example of unsaturated fat.
Other Types of Fat Explained
Saturated and unsaturated fats are just the two main categories of fats in your food. However, unsaturated fats can be further divided into mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated fats. The terms refer to the number of carbon atoms found in the molecules that make up the chains: mono- means one and poly- means many.
Typically, you’ll find mono-unsaturated fats in some types of nuts and in canola or olive oils. Poly-unsaturated fats are going to turn up in fats and similar products. Omega-3 fatty acids are an example of poly-unsaturated fats.
While omega-3 fatty acids are one of the best types of fats to consume because of a wide range of health benefits it provides for the body, another type of unsaturated fat is just the opposite: trans fatty acids.
Most types of unsaturated fat are good choices for health, at least in moderation. Trans fatty acids are not. They are formed when unsaturated fat is hydrogenated. When this happens, the molecules get pushed closer together and the gaps disappear. This process was used to increase the life expectancy of unsaturated fats which were known to be healthier than their saturated counterparts. However, trans fat is now known to be a major contributor to high cholesterol and heart disease.
The information supplied in this article is not to be considered as medical advice and is for educational purposes only.
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