How Unsaturated and Saturated Fats Affect 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

If you want to follow a low cholesterol diet, the first thing you need to understand is the difference between saturated fats and unsaturated fats. This is because some fats can raise cholesterol levels, while other fats lower cholesterol levels.

What Are Triglycerides?

Triglycerides are the main form of fat in our bodies and in our diets. Triglycerides:

  • 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 for us, too much of this substance in our blood can cause major health problems, such as raising our risk of heart disease.

The Categories of Fats

Knowing the right fats to eat can help reduce overall cholesterol levels and help us to 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. These fats:

  • come from animal products, such as fat lining the edge a steak or marbled through bacon
  • usually are solid at room temperature
  • are derived from animal products

When you look at the molecular structure of saturated fats they contain the maximum number of hydrogen atoms (hence "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 the "good cholesterol" (HDL) levels the same. These are usually liquid at room temperature.

When looking at their molecular structure, there are two hydrogen atoms missing with a double bond between two carbon atoms replacing them. Monounsaturated fats include canola oil and olive oil.

Polyunsaturated Fats

This type of fat tends to lower both LDL and HDL levels (remember: you want to keep 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 through 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.

These include omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, which are linked to lowering triglyceride levels. Common sources of essential fatty acids include:

  • vegetable oils
  • fish
  • grains
  • seeds
  • vegetables

You can 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 in order to protect against rancidity from bacteria or air exposure.

This 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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