You can think of dietary fats by lumping them into two general categories: saturated fat and unsaturated fat. The difference is in the structure of the fatty acid chains. Imagine a ball with some streamers attached to it, like a comet (you’re imagining a phospholipid). The ball is called a glycerol head and the streamers are fatty acid chains. If the streamers are in a straight line behind the ball, with no kinks or bends, then it’s a saturated fat. If the streamers have kinks and bends then it’s an unsaturated fat.
When our body makes cells the wall of the cell is made from two layers of the phospholipids nose-to-nose. In order for anything to get in or out of a cell it has to go through the phospholipid layer. So, if those streamers are packed in solid and straight it’s hard to things to get through, but, if those streamers have wiggles and bends in them it allows things through the wall. We want our cells to be flexible and a wall made of saturated fat is hard and inflexible.
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We can classify our saturated and unsaturated fat even further.
Saturated fats we can divide into animal sources and plant sources. Animal sources are the ones you’re already thinking of: butter, meat, cheese, etc. Those saturated fats are considered long-chained fats, and in too high a quantity they can lead to inflammation and heart disease.
Plant sources of saturated fats are from coconut oil. Back in the 1970’s coconut oil got a bad rap because research was done on processed coconut oil. Recent research on virgin non-processed coconut oil has shown that the medium-chain fats can provide easy fat burning so it’s easier on the liver. Organic coconut oil is a good alternative to shortenings and butter, and should be used for low or medium heat cooking.
Unsaturated fats can be divided into trans fats and cis fats. You’ve probably heard of one of those, right? Trans fats are not good for us, our body doesn’t know how to break them down properly and a trans fat diet can lead to cardiovascular disease, inflammation, and other health problems. Usually trans fats are found in fried foods, donuts, margarine, cake mixes, Bisquick, breaded frozen foods, to name a few. Trans fats have a nice crispy mouth feel so we tend to crave the foods that contain trans fats, but try to avoid them! This bit is a little confusing, but unsaturated fats are generally good with the exception of trans fats.
Cis fats are also unsaturated, and they’re what we think of when we consider the healthy unsaturated fats. Cis fats are either monounsaturated (olive oil, avocado oil, sunflower oil) or polyunsatured (flaxseed oil and our omega 3, omega 6, and omega 9 oils). Monounsaturated fats are at the heart of the highly touted Mediterranean diet. The cis fats are beneficial for our heart, our arteries, and our immune response. When we eat a diet rich in essential fatty acids (like Omega-3) our bodies produce more beneficial prostaglandins and leukotrienes (immune modulators) which relaxes blood vessels, airways, muscle spasms, and helps reduce inflammation. As Americans, we tend to eat too much Omega-6 fats which are not good for us, so stick with the Omega-3’s and 9’s.
There are entire books written on this subject, so you can probably expect some more blog posts from me in the future. If this is interesting to you though, go research it!