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Saturated vs. Unsaturated Fatty Acids

With healthy foods gaining in popularity, you’ve surely started paying more attention to terms like saturated fats, unsaturated fatty acid, poly and mono unsaturated fats, essential fatty acids, omega-3 fatty acids and hydrogenated fat. Doesn’t it all baffle you? You feel like a scientist in a lab with all these names. But, it’s important to know what they mean.

What Are Fats?

Fats are important for your body because they insulate your nerve cells, balance your hormones, protect you from cold, keep the skin and arteries supple and also lubricate your joints. Pure fats are found in three broad areas: vegetable oils (corn oil, peanut oil, olive oil), meats (the white layer which outlines the cut of meat) and dairy products (butter, margarine). Fatty acids are carboxylic acids which have long hydrocarbon chains. The type of fatty acids within each specific type of fat determines the character of the fat including how healthy it is.

Saturated vs. Unsaturated Fatty Acids

Saturated fats (butter, dairy products, meat) are fats which are evenly filled out with hydrogen, which remains solid at room temperature. The introduction of double bonds in the hydrocarbon chain results in the formation of the unsaturated fatty acids (vegetable oils).  The fatty acid with a single double bond is called mono unsaturated fatty acid (e.g. oleic acid), and if it has multiple double bonds, it’s polyunsaturated (e.g. linoleic acid). By virtue of their tightly packed structure, the saturated fatty acids increase the levels of bad cholesterol (LDL) and clog the arteries. On the other hand, the unsaturated fatty acids increase the levels of good cholesterol (HDL) by taking the LDL to the liver to be broken down and removed from the body.

Poly unsaturated fatty acids remain liquid at room temp. If it needs to be solidified, it has to be hydrogenated, or saturated with hydrogen by breaking the carbon double bonds and attaching hydrogen. The mono unsaturated fats are considered good fats because of the lower cholesterol content.

Essential fatty acids are poly unsaturated fatty acids that your body can’t manufacture and, therefore, has to be provided through your diet.  It is divided into two groups – omega 3 and omega 6. Omega 6 is found in corn oil, sunflower oil, and soybean oil, while omega 3 is present in salmon, trout and tuna. For a healthy diet, concentrate on mono unsaturated fats like olive oil and essential fatty acids.

Dietary Requirements

The recommended consumption of saturated fats is not more than 10% of total calories per day and 30% for unsaturated fat. A healthy diet should include less total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol. So, have two to three servings of fish like mackerel, sardines, salmon, tuna and trout every week to get the Omega 3’s you need. Avoid fatty meat because they are rich in saturated fat, which stimulates the production of cholesterol and can lead to clogged arteries (and a greater chance of a heart attack).

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