Some people think that all fats are bad, but this couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, fat is an essential component of a healthy diet. Almost all natural foods include some fat, and it's utilized by the body as a major source of energy. Fat is also used to absorb vitamins and minerals, promote cell development and growth, sustain brain and nerve function, and maintain skin and tissue health.
But not all fats are created equal. And it's important to understand the differences between various types of fats so you can make healthy choices for yourself and your pets. In this blog post, we'll discuss the different types of fats and explain why some fats are healthier than others.
What Are the Different Types of Fats?
Fats are composed of three individual molecules called fatty acids connected to a glycerol molecule. Together, the three fatty acid molecules and the single glycerol molecule form a triglyceride molecule. Fatty acids are molecules consisting of chains of carbon atoms. There are many different types of fatty acids, and they can be distinguished by the length of their carbon chains.
Fat scientists have classified fatty acids into two main categories: saturated and unsaturated fats. The difference between these two types of fats lies in their chemical makeup. More specifically, the number of carbon atoms they contain and whether or not the fat is saturated with hydrogen atoms (saturated) or missing some hydrogen atoms (unsaturated) in its carbon chain. In the next section of this post, we'll take a closer look at saturated and unsaturated fats.
What Are Saturated Fats?
Saturated fats are classified into two primary categories, depending on the number of carbon atoms in their chain:
- Long-chain fats (long-chain triglycerides)
- Short and medium-chain fats (short-chain and medium-chain triglycerides)
Because saturated fats are fully loaded with a pair of hydrogen atoms, they have only single bonds in their carbon chain. This makes them more stable and less prone to oxidation and free-radical formation. Saturated fats are found mainly in:
- Animal products such as red meat
- Poultry with skin
- Whole-milk dairy products
- Tropical oils including coconut oil
What's the Difference Between Long-Chain & Short and Medium-Chain Fats?
Both the degree of saturation (number of hydrogen atoms) and length of carbon chain of the fatty acid determine their chemical properties and effects on our health.
Long-chain fats (long-chain triglycerides) are comprised of chains of 14-24 carbon atoms. Because they have a long carbon chain length, they're difficult for the body to break down. They need specific enzymes to be absorbed by the body and can put a lot of strain on the digestive system and internal organs like the liver and pancreas.
What's more, because they're not easily broken down and utilized, long-chain fats are often stored as body fat. This increases the risk of health problems like obesity and heart disease. Examples of long-chain fats include beef fat, butter, and cream. Because of their chemical composition, these types of saturated fats are cholesterol-rich and have been directly linked to a higher risk of heart disease and other health issues.
Short-chain fats (short-chain triglycerides) are composed of chains of fewer than 6 carbon atoms. They're produced by bacterial fermentation of dietary fiber in the colon and help promote a healthy gut microbiota. They are also thought to help support general health and reduce the incidence of inflammatory illnesses like obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Fiber-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes encourage the production of short-chain fats in the gut.
Medium-chain fats (medium-chain triglycerides) are made up of chains between 8 and 12 carbon atoms long. When consumed, they go straight to the liver where they can be used as an efficient fuel source or turned into ketones. Ketones are an alternative energy source to glucose – a far more powerful and efficient fuel that's especially beneficial for brain health.
Medium-chain fats are immediately used as an energy source, which means they're far less likely to be stored as body fat. They also help stimulate metabolism and prevent weight gain. And since they're easily digested by the body, they prevent strain on the gastrointestinal tract.
Examples of medium-chain fats include coconut oil, palm oil, and goat's milk. Thanks to the way they're processed by the body, these types of saturated fats do not increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. In fact, they've been proven to benefit overall health.
What Are Unsaturated Fats?
Unsaturated fats can be further broken down into two groups:
- Monounsaturated fats
- Polyunsaturated fats
Unlike saturated fats, unsaturated fats are missing some hydrogen atoms in their carbon chain. This means they have one or more double bonds in their chemical makeup. Because of these double bonds, unsaturated fats are less stable than saturated fats and are more prone to oxidation and free-radical formation. Unsaturated fats are found in:
- Some types of fish
What's the Difference Between Monounsaturated Fats & Polyunsaturated Fats?
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats have different chemical structures, which affect how they're metabolized by the body.
Monounsaturated fats are missing one pair of hydrogen atoms in their carbon chain. This means that they have one unsaturated double carbon bond. Monounsaturated fats are found in foods like avocados, nuts, seeds, and plant-based oils such as olive oil, canola oil, and sunflower oil. They're thought to help lower "bad" cholesterol levels, reduce the risk of heart disease, aid weight loss, and support healthy blood sugar levels.
Omega-9 fatty acids are monounsaturated fats. They're found in foods like almonds, walnuts, olive oil, sunflower oil, and sesame oil. Research has shown that they may help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke.
Polyunsaturated fats are missing two or more pairs of hydrogen atoms and contain two or more unsaturated double carbon bonds. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats.
Omega-3 fatty acids are found in plant and marine sources like fatty fish, fish oil, and green leafy vegetables. They've been shown to provide a multitude of health benefits, including reducing the risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancer.
Omega-6 fatty acids are found in foods like safflower seeds, sunflower seeds, corn oil, and soybean oil. They can help to prevent heart disease by lowering "bad" (LDL) cholesterol levels, but when consumed in excess, they may cause damage to cells in the heart and blood vessels.
Which Types of Fats Are Best for Use in Cooking?
Throughout this post, we've discussed different types of fats and the foods they're found in. But what happens when we cook with various types of fats? In his Healthy Ways Newsletter, lipids expert, Dr. Bruce Fife, C.N., N.D. discusses the stability of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats:
"Fatty acids are most stable when they are bonded to all the hydrogen atoms they can hold. When hydrogen atoms are missing, as in the case of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, they become less stable or more chemically reactive. The more hydrogen atoms that are missing, the more chemically unstable the fatty acid becomes. Therefore, saturated fatty acids are stable, monounsaturated fatty acids are less stable, and polyunsaturated fatty acids are the least stable.”
Dr. Fife goes on to explain that the stability of these fats affects how healthy they are for use in cooking:
"When fats are heated, these unstable fatty acids are easily transformed into harmful compounds such as trans fatty acids, free radicals, and 4-hydroxy-trans-2-nonenal (HNE). When you cook with polyunsaturated oils, you create these toxic substances...Saturated fats are the most heat stable. You can cook them at high temperatures without creating these toxic compounds."
Cooking With Coconut Oil
As we mentioned earlier, coconut oil is a medium-chain fat that provides a wide range of health benefits. Coconut oil contains 63% medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs). Therapeutic-grade oil such as CocoTherapy Virgin Coconut Oil contains high levels of lauric acid (at least 53% compared to 40% or less in grocery store brands).
Sometimes referred to as a "super ingredient", lauric acid is responsible for many of coconut oil's health benefits including its immune-supporting, antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral properties. In addition, coconut oil contains capric acid and caprylic acid. These MCFAs are known for their antifungal effects and are highly beneficial to overall health.
Thanks to its unique composition of fatty acids, coconut oil is highly resistant to oxidation at high heat. Unlike monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, this makes it very well-suited for frying and other high-heat cooking methods. When you cook with coconut oil, you can be sure that you're not creating harmful toxins like those formed when cooking with other oils.
All this means that coconut oil is a healthy and safe choice for cooking, whether you're baking a cake, frying up some eggs, or sautéing your favorite vegetables. As part of a healthy diet, coconut oil can help you lose weight, improve your cholesterol ratio, boost your energy levels, and much more!
Check out our previous post to discover more about the wonderful health benefits of coconut oil.