Jar of olive oil surrounded by olives
Education

The Different Kinds of Fats

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So, today I wanted to go a bit back to the “basics” and cover the different kinds es of fats out there. Contrary to what we have been told most of our lives, fat does not necessarily make you fat. I know this notion is difficult to get a grasp on. Mainly we have been told differently most of our lives. There is so much research on this topic that I will do a follow-up on what kinds of fats are good for what.

Why Should We Consume Fat?

In a nutshell, our body needs fat in order to metabolize and function properly, just as it needs carbohydrates and proteins. Fat is also important for cell growth, it protects your organs, balances hormones, and helps to keep you warm. Our brain consists of over 60% of fat. We basically deprive our brains of their nutrient power when we stay away from fats completely. 

Olives on branches in the wind with a blue sky
Photo by Frank Albrecht on Unsplash

Now that we understand why fat is so important for us… Where do I begin? I have to admit that for the longest time, I understood that there were different types of fat. I struggled with fully grasping the concept though. Apart from the name and obviously that you find them in different foods. The “aha” moment came for me when I had to read a (rather elaborate and partially difficult) book for my Culinary Nutrition Expert Program called “The Big Fat Surprise” by Nina Teicholz. It finally clicked for me when I physically saw the chemical structure of fat and I wanted to share that with you.

The Chemical Structure of Fat

You see, fat looks like this: 

Basically, fat is made up of carbon (C) atoms, which are surrounded by hydrogen atoms (H). They have a carboxylic acid group at one end (this is O and H-O you see to your left). Fatty acid chains can come in various lengths and also have different types of chemical bonds that are holding them together.

The Different Kinds of Fats

Saturated Fats

Saturated fats only have single bonds (the one dash) attached to each carbon. There is also no space to add in more molecules. As you can see, they are all taken (or saturated). If you are ever unsure, as a rule of thumb, saturated fats tend to be solid at room temperature (think butter or lard). Saturated fat can primarily be found in animal products. Examples include red meat, cheese, and dairy, but also in some plant-based foods, for example, coconut and coconut oil.

Charcuterie board with meats, olives, cheeses, and wine
Photo by Melissa Walker Horn on Unsplash

Truthfully, the research on saturated fats is still a mixed bag. It has been shown to increase overall cholesterol levels, your “bad” cholesterol, as well as potential triglyceride levels when eaten in large or excessive quantities. However, even though this link has been established, there is little evidence to suggest that people are dying more of the consequences of having these conditions (e.g. heart disease, stroke, etc.). In fact, the reverse might be true. Since saturated fat has become the culprit and/or solution to heart disease in the 1950s, cases have been on a continuous rise, rather than decreasing, even though our saturated fat intake around the world has decreased drastically. 

Personally, I like to approach things in moderation. We do not suddenly become “healthy” by eating one meal. We also do not become “unhealthy” by eating another one. Rather, it is a balance over time, which can include plenty of plant-based goodness and meals that are a mixture of carbohydrates, proteins, and yes, fat (also the saturated kind in smaller quantities). And let us not forget that food is also about great taste! I, personally, find great pleasure in a piece of delicious cheese for example 😋. 

Unsaturated Fats

Unsaturated fats, on the contrary, contain double bonds (basically the equal sign you see in the second chemical structure). A double bond makes the fat less stable. One bond could potentially detach itself and take on more atoms. It also means that hydrogen is not attached to every carbon. You can see there is a bit of space in the middle. This means the oil (or fat) is packed together more loosely.

Olive oil being photographed up close
Photo by jonathan ocampo on Unsplash

When we “translate” that into kitchen language, it means that the oils tend to be liquid at room temperature (with a few exceptions, of course). If you see only 1 double bond in the chemical structure (just like in the picture above), it means that this is a monounsaturated type of fat. If there are multiple double bonds it is a polyunsaturated fat. Unsaturated fats have been shown to decrease both your “bad” and overall cholesterol levels. They are also usually anti-inflammatory and are deemed to play an important part in your overall heart health.

Examples of good types of fat for monounsaturated fats are, e.g. olives, avocados, nuts, and pumpkin, and sesame seeds. Good examples of polyunsaturated fats are e.g. flax seeds, fish, walnuts, and sunflower seeds. Note: There is still a mixed bag of research out there on some vegetable oils. This is the reason why I did not mention them in the list above. Think corn oil, cottonseed oil, soybean oil, are heavily processed in order to extract oil. We do not even eat cotton seeds – who thought it would make a “good” oil?!

Transfats

And then there is another category that is called “transfat”. This one personally freaks me out when thinking about it!!. With transfat, you take a monounsaturated oil and, through a process called hydrogenation, make it solid. This is mainly done to produce cheaper convenience goods. Think store-bought cookies, pastries, muffins, or french fries. Basically, the oil + hydrogenation is still cheaper than using, for example, real butter. 

French fries being pulled out of a hot keeping holder
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

The real big challenge here though is, that transfats are manually altered. What this means is that the structure of atoms is changed and may not come together again as it should or gets broken in some way. This is what makes them highly dangerous to us. Our body does not recognize them and thereby does also not understand how to metabolize them. Some countries have already banned trans fats (thank goodness)! If the research jury is still “out” on saturated fats, we know for sure that transfats are not good for us. They create inflammation in the body, can contribute to heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, and also increase your “bad” cholesterol, as well as decrease your “good” and overall cholesterol levels. 

I hope this topic was as interesting for you as it was for me to re-research and brush up on 💕. As said, next week I will introduce some of my favorite oils and their different kinds of usage in the kitchen.  

The beautiful cover photo is by the talented Roberta Sorge on Unsplash.

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