Unsaturated Fats

These 'healthy' fats have high nutritional value

Unaturated Fats
Yesss ! ! !

Yesss!!! Fats that are good for you!

It's true, unsaturated fats are often called 'good fats'.

Saturated fats, on the other hand, have earned the label 'bad fats.

Unsaturated fats can help reduce heart disease, lower cholesterol levels and have other health benefits when they replace saturated fats in your diet.

But remember 'good' fats are still fats. If you eat them in excess they will cause you the same problems as 'bad' fats in excess.

If you eat more than your body needs, your body will still save them for you, adding yet more handy layers to your reserves of body fat!

But eaten in balance with a healthy diet and lifestyle, you can enjoy their nutritional benefits (and their taste!), and keep that slim waistline.

Which foods contain unsaturated fats?

olive oil is a source of unsaturated fats
Good oil - extra virgin olive oil

You'll find them in many plant-based foods such as vegetables, nuts and seeds, and high-fat fruits, notably olives and avacadoes.

Oils made from plant sources, like olive oil and canola oil, are good sources of unsaturated fats.

Walnuts, sunflower seeds and sesame seeds are rich in unsaturated fats. So are fish.

Saturated ('bad') fats on the other hand, are the main types of fat in meat and dairy-based foods, although there are also unsaturated fats in these foods.

The confusion surrounding fat

But exactly why are some fats healthy, and others bad for you?

olive oil is a source of unsaturated fats

Fats can be so confusing

There are so many terms: good fats and bad fats; saturated fats; unsaturated fats; monounsaturated fats; polyunsaturated fats; essential fatty acids; triglycerides; cholesterol (good and bad/ldl and hdl); lipids; trans fats. The list seems to go on.

We're told that some are killer fats but there are fats that heal. Some are essential; some are dangerous.

And the advice seems to change every time there's a new study or a new diet comes out.

Then there are all these product choices: What are we to make of terms like lite and low fat and fat free? Are they really better for you? Or is it true they're just marketing gimmicks?

How can you possibly understand fats and make sense of it all?

We count our calories and watch our weight yet they tell us we're all getting fatter.

Is something wrong?

One problem is that many of the people who give us advice actually have a vested interest in influencing our behaviour, particularly our consumption and spending patterns.

Examples are industry groups representing meat and dairy interests, food and pharmaceutical corporations seeking to market their brands and products and legislators lobbied by pressure groups representing producers, employees, retailers, transport groups, investors and other stakeholders in the food industry.

Genuine health messages can get lost in the clutter.

Lifting the fog on fat

Getting to know your way around fats: their behaviour, their benefits and the bad bits

You don't need to know any fancy body chemistry to understand fats

The following simple explanation will help you see why 'good' fats are good and why 'bad' fats are bad. This will make healthy food choices easier. And they will make more sense.

Almost all the fats in your food and in your body are in a form known as triglycerides. These are the fats of life: just about all animal and vegetable fats and oils are triglycerides; you have lots of them inside you right now. They're floating in your bloodstream carrying energy to your cells, and they're deposited throughout your body as body fat, a necessary store of future energy, an insulator against heat and cold and a cushion against physical shocks. These fats of yours carry out or enable many functions in your body. They're crucial to vitality and your health.

So what's a triglyceride?

A triglyceride comprises three fatty acid chains linked with a glycerol molecule

A triglyceride (tri = 3) is simply a molecule of fat (or of oil - an oil is just a liquid fat) formed when three fatty acid chains combine with glycerol. Again, don't worry about how the chemistry works, that's not important here.

We're just leading up to something that will make all of this good and bad fat business much clearer for you.

So a triglyceride is simply a molecule of fat containing three fatty acid chains. These fatty acid chains are what make it a fat. And it's the way these chains are structured that makes it a good fat or a bad one.

What is a fatty acid chain?

A fatty acid chain is a bunch of carbon and hydrogen atoms organised in a straight line as if they were links in a tightly pulled chain.

Saturated Fatty Acid carbon chain
Example of a saturated fatty acid chain

That's just what fatty acids do: their 'links' want to form straight lines. Different types of fats have chains of different length, which means their chains are made up of more (or fewer) hydrogen and carbon atoms.

But there's a second crucial difference between different types of fats. It relates to the way the carbon and hydrogen atoms bond together.

These differences are critical for your health.

The example shown above is of what's called a saturated fatty acid chain.(forget for now the bits in boxes at the ends of the chain - they're to do with how the chain combines with the glycerol. We don't need to know about that stuff right now - it's the chain we're interested in.) You'll see why in just a moment.

The chain in our example is called saturated because it contains the maximum possible number of hydrogen atoms - two for each carbon atom. It's saturated with hydrogen. A carbon atom, for reasons of its chemistry, likes to bond with four other atoms. In this case, two hydrogen atoms and - to keep the chain going - its two neighbouring carbon atoms.

You might guess where this is going: unsaturated fats, then, must be fats in which not all of the fatty acids are saturated. But how does this come about?

Double bonds

Unsaturated fats don't have the maximun possible number of hydrogen atoms.

This happens when one or more double bonds occur in a fatty acid chain

Sometimes in a carbon chain, a carbon atom will bond twice with a neighbouring carbon atom. Because it's the nature of carbon atoms to have no more than four bonds, it has to sacrifice one of its bonds with a hydrogen atom to do so.

Unsaturated fatty acid
Example of an usaturated fatty acid carbon chain with a single double bond

Each carbon atom in the example still has four bonds, but two of these bonds are with a neighbouring carbon atom. Overall, there are two hydrogen atoms less in the chain. It's unsaturated.

The presence of one or more double bonds, is the defining characteristic of an unsaturated fatty acid.

And now we have reached a point where we can why this seemingly small point of difference has massive implications for your health.

The chains that bend

Unsaturated fats are healthier because

Saturated Fatty Acid carbon chain
A saturated fatty acid chain

As we've seen, the carbon chains of saturated fatty acids are arranged in a straight line, as in the example on the right. The blue discs represent carbon atoms, and the red discs hydrogen atoms. Each 'link' in the chain comprises a carbon atom and two hydrogen atoms.

Unaturated fatty acid carbon chain
An unaturated fatty acid carbon chain with two double bonds

Now on the left we have a carbon chain with two double bonds.

As you've just learned, a double bond results in two hydrogen atoms 'missing' from the chain.

It turns out that in fats found in nature (as opposed to artificial ones created by food chemists), the two hydrogen atoms will normally be missing from the same side of the chain.

This causes something interesting to happen:

The chain bends.

In our example above we see two bends, one for each of the two double bonds.

Well now, what do kinky chains have to do with our health? We've come to the interesting part that will help you understand why unsaturated fats (bendy ones) are healthier than saturated ones.

Bendy is best

Unsaturated (bendy) fats tend to flow more freely through your bloodstream than saturated fats do

So they're less likely to promote problems like clotting, or the growth of plaque on artery walls

Saturated fats ('bad' fats), due to their shapes - clean, sleek, straight lines - tend to align and aggregate together. They're 'sticky.'

Unsaturated fats, on the other hand, tend to spread out and disperse rather than to align and aggregate. Partly this to do with their bent shapes. But there's another reason. Double bonds produce small local negative electrical charges, because each double bond has an extra pair of electrons. Since like charges repel each other, UFA chains tend to repel each other. Unsaturated fats are therefore less 'sticky' than saturated ones.

In general, unsaturated oils don't have the blood cholesterol raising effect that saturated fatty acids have.

Classification of Unsaturated fats

Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated fats

Unsaturated fats (UFAs) are divided into two types depending on the number of double bonds they have

Monounsaturated fats have one double bond; polyunsaturated fats have two or more double bonds.

Both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids will help you lower your 'bad' cholesterol levels. And in addition it appears that monounsaturated fats can actually help you raise your 'good' cholesterol level.

Healthiest of all are a class of UFAs called essential fatty acids.

Monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs)

Monounsaturated fatty acids contain one double bond. They're liquid at room temperature, but begin to solidify at colder temperatures. They remain relatively stable (maintain their chemical structure) when exposed to heat or light.

Examples of foods which are high in monosaturated fatty acids include olives, olive oil, canola oil, nuts, peanuts and peanut oil, and avocados.

Are 'light' oils healthier?

There's no such thing as a low fat oil.

All oils are 100% fat. When a label on cooking oil reads 'light', it refers to its taste or colour, not its fat content. The terms 'oil' and 'fat' as commonly used mean the same thing in nutritional terms.

From another perspective, an oil is just a liquid fat; it's a fat that has reached its melting point. For example most cooking oils are liquid at room temperature. The fat on meat is not. Both are made up of fatty acids, mostly triglycerides.

Oils rich in monounsaturated fatty acids are often recommended as cooking oils because they remain relatively stable when heated due to their high ratio of monounsaturated to polyunsaturated fatty acids.

However there is a problem with using these oils for cooking. Cooking oils, with the exception of extra virgin olive oil, are highly processed. The manufacturing methods used primarily to lengthen and stabilize the shelf life of oils are destructive to oil molecules, and much of their nutrient content is destroyed.

Foremost world oil expert Udo Erasmus doesn't recommend using oils for cooking at all. He advises that even monounsaturated oils are destroyed nutritionally at cormal cooking temperatures. His view is that if you must cook (i.e.fry) with fat, use hard fats such as lard or butter. Hard fats are less toxic when fried than are liquid oils.

Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs)

Polyunsaturated fatty acids contain two or more double bonds. They are liquid at room temperature and are unstable when exposed to heat or light.

This type of fat tends to lower both LDL ('bad' cholesterol) and HDL (bad cholesterol) levels. This is problematic because it's advisable to keep HDL levels high.

Examples of unsaturated fats with a high concentration of polyunsaturated fatty acids include linoleic acid (two double bonds) and linolenic acid (three double bonds).

Polyunsaturated fatty acids can be found in high concentrations in vegetable seeds and their oils including safflower, sunflower, corn, sesame, cottonseed, soybean and flaxseed oils. They are found in high concentrations in sunflower, corn, soybean, and flaxseed oils. You can get them also in foods such as walnuts, flax seeds, wheat germ, full oat bran and seeds, nuts and cold water fish.

Don't use PUFAs for cooking. Their chemical structure becomes unstable when exposed to heat. They are best used for purposes such as salad dressings and dips.

Essential Fatty Acids

PUFAs include the so-called essential fatty acids (EFAs) Omega 3 and Omega 6. These important unsaturated fats are called essential because your body needs them, but can't manufacture them itself; you have to get these fatty acids from your food.

Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include cold-water fish, flax seed, soy, and walnuts. These fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and also boost our immune systems.

They are particularly healthy because they are used for many important body functions. We need EFAs to maintain the architecture of cell our membranes. They are also used as a component in the production of eicosanoids, a type of hormone used by the body to help regulate blood pressure, blood clot formation, and immune function.

Some PUFAs (EFAs) can also help reduce blood cholesterol levels.

These include omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, which have been linked to lowering triglyceride levels.

Common sources of essential fatty acids include vegetable oils, fish, grains, seeds, and vegetables. There are supplements of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids available at pharmacies.

More on Healthy Weight Loss

Knowledge is the key to taking personal responsibility for your health, including healthy weight loss.

Two common approaches to 'measuring your weight' are the Body Mass Index and the Body Fat Percentage, a specific measure of your body fat.

Learn about lipids and triglycerides, and about lowering your triglycerides.

Understand the difference between saturated fats and unsaturated fats(Return to top) ('bad' and 'good' fats).

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