How Unsaturated and Saturated Fats Affect Your Cholesterol

Saturated Fats Come From Animal Sources

Frying fish in a pan
Common sources of essential fatty acids include vegetable oils, fish, grains, seeds, and vegetables. Philippe Desnerck/Photolibrary/Getty Images

The key to following a low cholesterol diet is understanding the difference between saturated fats and unsaturated fats. These types of fat are triglycerides and some can raise cholesterol levels, while others lower cholesterol levels.

What Are Triglycerides?

Triglycerides are the main form of fat in our bodies and diets. There are a number of benefits associated with these essential fats.

  • Provide us with energy and insulation.
  • Protect our internal organs from damage.
  • Enable our bodies to metabolize proteins and carbohydrates more efficiently.

Despite the many benefits triglycerides provide, too much of this substance in the blood can cause major health problems. This includes raising your risk of heart disease.

The Categories of Fats

Knowing the right fats to eat can help reduce overall cholesterol levels and help us maintain a healthy body. You can further divide triglycerides into the following categories:

  • Saturated fats
  • Monounsaturated fats
  • Polyunsaturated fats
  • Essential fatty acids
  • Hydrogenated fats

Saturated Fats

Saturated fats, such as butter and lard, are the most detrimental to your health. They have a number of characteristics in common.

  • Saturated fats are usually solid at room temperature.
  • These are included in animal products such as the fat lining the edge a steak or marbled through a strip of bacon.
  • They can also be derived from animal products such as butter or lard.

    When you look at the molecular structure of saturated fats, they contain the maximum number of hydrogen atoms (hence they are "saturated" with hydrogen atoms). There is a strong correlation between eating a diet high in this type of triglyceride and developing heart disease.

    Monounsaturated Fats

    Monounsaturated fats are a type of lipid that lowers "bad cholesterol" (LDL) and leaves "good cholesterol" (HDL) levels the same.

    When looking at their molecular structure, there are two hydrogen atoms missing. These are replaced by a double bond between two carbon atoms.

    Monounsaturated fats are typically liquid at room temperature and include canola oil and olive oil.

    Polyunsaturated Fats

    Polyunsaturated fat tends to lower both LDL and HDL levels (remember that you want to maintain high levels of HDL). These are liquid at room temperature and typically have more than two hydrogen atoms missing.

    Polyunsaturated fats include safflower oil, sunflower oil, and corn oil.

    Essential Fatty Acids

    You must obtain essential fatty acids within your diet in order to maintain the architecture of cell 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. This is why these fats are "essential."

    Essential fatty acids include omega-6 and omega-3, which are linked to lowering triglyceride levels. Common sources of essential fatty acids include vegetable oils, fish, grains, seeds, and vegetables. You can also buy supplements of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids.

    Hydrogenated Fats

    The process of hydrogenation adds hydrogen atoms back into polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats.

    This protects against rancidity from bacteria or air exposure and increases their shelf life at the store.

    As a consequence, this process causes hydrogenated fats to become saturated fats.

    If a food label states the words "partially hydrogenated oils" among its first ingredients, that means that it contains a lot of trans fats and saturated fats. These fats increase LDL levels and decrease HDL levels, which may increase your risk of heart disease.

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