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Fat of the Land (and sea): The Skinny on Fats

Fat of the Land (and sea): The Skinny on Fats

There is an awful lot of confusion in most people’s mind about fat. In the last few decades, even the word itself has become demonised. This is particularly the case with saturated fat. This is perhaps because the words ‘saturated fat’ tend to bring up an image of utterly soaked fat just oozing gelatinous drops of unpleasant, oily liquid. The truth is much more mundane than such dramatic images. Fat is an essential macro-nutrient, without it we die. It is present in every cell of our bodies. Fat is needed to transport hormones. It supplies the body with an almost inexhaustible source of energy. The brain is 60% fat, much of which is cholesterol (1). Fatty acids are fundamental to your brain’s integrity. We need to stop fearing fat and start understanding it.

What is Fat?

All fats are chemically similar. They are simply chains of carbon atoms bonded to hydrogen atoms. At one end of these chains, a carboxyl group is generally found. A carboxyl group consists of a carbon atom double-bonded to an oxygen atom and singly-bonded to a hydroxyl group. The difference between the various forms of fat is the length and shape of the central carbon chain. The hydrogen atoms connect to this central chain in various ways and this decides exactly what form of fat we are dealing with. These relatively small differences make a huge difference in the fat’s form and how it functions within the body.

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Different Types of Fat

To clearly understand what these different fats are we need to differentiate between their structures. To further clarify, we will give examples of each as they might occur in our diets.

Saturated Fat

The simplest type of fat molecule is known called ‘saturated’. This does not mean it is saturated as in a sponge but simply that the carbon atoms are saturated by hydrogen atoms using exclusively single bonds. In that sense, saturated fats are the simplest possible form of fat.

saturated fat
Note that Saturated fats only have single bonds. The carboxyl group is shown on the left-hand end of this diagram.

Saturated fat is normally solid at room temperature. They normally have high melting points, hence are generally safer to fry with. Frying is not highly recommended in general because of the strong possibility of thereby creating advanced glycation end products in the body (2). If you wish to fry food, though, by far the safest way to do so is with saturated fats such as palm oil, coconut oil, and butter (3).

Saturated fats are commonly found in animal products such as pork, fatty beef, eggs, cheeses, butter, and whole milk. Non-animal sources are such things as coconut oil and palm oil.

Unsaturated Fat

What we call unsaturated fats basically come in two forms: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. The difference is simply the number of double bonds in the carbon chain. These double bonds come in tow forms: cis and trans. Cis means the hydrogen atoms are connected to just one side of the double-bonded carbon atoms. Trans, on the other hand, indicates that the hydrogen atoms are on opposite sides to the carbon atom.

1. Monounsaturated Fat

As indicated by the prefix ‘mono’, monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) contains just one double bond per molecule. The hydrogen atoms are in a cis form in relation to the double-bonded carbon atoms.

monounsaturated fat
Note the one double bond that characterises Monounsaturated Fat

MUFAs are liquid at room temperature. They have a lower melting point than either saturated fats or trans fats, hence not as good for frying food.

Examples of monounsaturated fats are olive oil, canola oil, and peanut oil. They are also found in nuts, seeds, and avocados.

2. Polyunsaturated Fat

Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) are differentiated from monounsaturated fatty acids by the fact that they contain more than one double bond in their spine. Again, the hydrogen atoms are normally arranged in cis form in relation to the double-bonded carbon atoms.

polyunsaturated fat
Note the multiple double bonds that characterise polyunsaturated fats

PUFAs are also liquid at room temperature, though solid when chilled. They have a much lower melting point than either saturated fats or trans fats. Because of their relative instability, one should avoid frying with these oils (though the vast majority of commercial outlets do).

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Commonly used examples of polyunsaturated fats are vegetable oils such as Grapeseed Oil, Corn Oil, Soybean Oil, Generic Vegetable Oils, Walnuts Oil, Cottonseed Oil, Sesame Oil, Peanut Oil, Margarine, Flaxseed Oil. Basically, the whole range of so-called ‘vegetable oils. You may have noticed that some oils make the list for both mono and polyunsaturated fats. This is because they contain large amounts of both. Margarine often contains polyunsaturated fats. Unfortunately, they also sometimes contain very unhealthy transfats as well. Caution is needed when purchasing such products.


We now know, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the worst type of commonly available dietary fat is trans fat. These are produced by the process of hydrogenation. Trans fats also have the presence of double bonds in the fat molecule, but the hydrogen atoms are in trans form instead of the normal cis configuration. The purpose of hydrogenation is to turn oils into solids. It is also meant to prevent oils from going rancid, hence allow processed foods manufacturers to extend shelf-life. These fats are complete bereft of health benefits. They are simply too dangerous and should be avoided at all costs (4).

Until really quite recent times, trans fats were being heralded for their health benefits because of their role in possibly reducing a form of cholesterol known as low-density lipids (LDL). As ever with the cholesterol and fats story, reality has turned out to be a lot more nuanced than was once portrayed. Recent research has demonstrated a very direct connection between consumption of trans fatty acids with a huge range of illnesses from cardiovascular disease to breast cancer, from disorders of brain function to diabetes.

Given their ubiquitous use, it has been hard to avoid these trans fatty acids because of their overuse in the food system. They are found everywhere where the manufacturers can gain from their preservative qualities and relative cheapness. Examples would be baked goods, cookies, pies, frozen pizza, refrigerated dough, french fries, fried chicken, doughnuts, margarine, and so on and so forth (5).


Triglycerides are an ester made up of three fatty acid groups and glycerol. They are the main constituents of natural fats and oils.

triglyceride fat

Triglycerides are a type of fat that is found in the blood. Excessive amounts of triglycerides in the blood are considered dangerous in themselves. When you consume food, your body will convert any calories it doesn’t need to use immediately into triglycerides. These are then stored in the body’s fat cells. They may be released at a later stage, to be used as energy when no glucose is available. Unfortunately, given modern Western eating habits, these stores do not always get utilised and hence can simply become more or less permanent body fat. This state of affairs is known as hypertriglyceridemia. Unhappily, in Western societies, with their high carbohydrate diets, obesity, and sedentary lifestyles, this condition is not at all uncommon.

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Omega Fatty Acids

Omega fatty acids come in various forms. We know these as omega-3, omega-6, omega-7, and omega-9. These are differentiated mainly by the position of the final double bond. They are also differentiated by the fact that omega-3s and omega-6s are polyunsaturated, whereas omega-7s and omega-9 are monounsaturated.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat. The ‘3’ refers to the position of the final double bond in the molecule’s chain. This means that the bond in question is to be found three carbon atoms from the end point, or ‘omega’ (taken from the final letter of the Greek alphabet, hence meaning the end). Our bodies cannot produce omega-3s, hence these fats are referred to as ‘essential’.

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omega 3 fish oil fat

There are altogether eleven forms of Omega-3 fatty acids. However, for our purposes, we only need to consider three. These are Alpha-Linolecic acid (ALA), Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). All three are essential fatty acids, the ‘essential’ here meaning that they are needed for our body’s health but are not created by the body, therefore they need to come from an outside source (diet or supplements).

ALA is found mainly in foods such as kale, spinach, and walnuts and plant oils such as flaxseed oil and soybean oil. To be useful to us, it needs to be converted into EPA or DHA by our bodies if it is to be used for anything other than simply energy. Unfortunately, our bodies are not very good at this process and only a relatively small amount of ALA can be converted into EPA. The situation is even worse with DHA. Despite being a type of omega-3, ALA is relatively poorly converted by the body. One sometimes reads on vegan websites that we can get all the omega-3s we need from plant sources. It probably is possible, but it would involve ingesting huge amounts to achieve this aim. Much simpler to eat some fish, methinks…

EPA is used by the body to make signalling molecules known as eicosanoids. These play a significant role in reducing inflammation and in other bodily processes. EPA helps to ensure a healthy cardiovascular system, aids in metabolic fat-burning processes and helps maintain joint health. It is also considered wise to ensure that children get sufficient EPA as it is considered to be useful for their healthy cognitive development.

DHA is also vital for ensuring cognitive and functional development of the brain in young children. For adults, it plays a similar role in the maintenance of brain function. Lack of DHA can lead to a whole range of cognitive problems, such as deficits in attention and concentration, sleep problems, hair, eye, and skin problems, joint pain, and menstrual irregularity in women, to name but a few.

Fortunately, EPA and DHA are readily obtained in fish, particularly oily types such as mackerel, anchovy, sardine, and salmon. Other types of seafood also contain sufficient quantities, such as oysters and caviar.  Some omega-3 can be found in non-animal sources but, as previously mentioned, it is often in the form of ALA and hence poorly converted by the body. Getting sufficient omega-3s are one of the big challenges of vegan/vegetarian diets, ranking right up there with other deficiencies on these diets such essentials as vitamin B12 and heme iron.

omega 3 fat in brain and neurological health

Omega-6 Fatty Acids

Omega-6 fatty acids are also a type of polyunsaturated fat. The ‘6’ refers to the position of the final double bond in the molecule’s chain. This means that the bond in question is to be found six carbon atoms from the endpoint of the molecule. Our bodies cannot produce omega-6s either, hence these fats are also referred to as ‘essential’.

In general, a standard Western diet provides more than enough omega-6s. The problem for most people is to try to establish a sensible ratio between the intake of omega-6s and omega-3s. Generally speaking, a reasonable ratio is thought to be in the region of 4:1, but even lower ratios may be better. The average person on a Western diet probably has a ratio in the region of slightly in excess of 15:1. Some folks may even ‘achieve’ figures of 40:1 or even 50:1.

Omega-7 Fatty Acids

Omega-7 fatty acids are a type of monounsaturated fat. The ‘7’ refers to the position of the final, and in this case only, double-bond in the molecule’s chain. This means that the bond in question is to be found seven carbon atoms from the omega end of the fatty acid molecule. Our bodies can produce omega-7s, therefore these fats are not referred to as ‘essential’. The most common omega 7s are palmitoleic acid and vaccenic acid.

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It has been recently found that small daily doses of omega-7s function as a lipokine. This is a signalling molecule that can shut down inflammation, hence it can add another weapon to our arsenal in the fight against cardiovascular and diabetes problems. Other studies have shown omega-7s to aid in fat breakdown and increasing fat burning generally (6).

Much of the recent work on omega-7s are very encouraging. It is becoming ever clearer that there is a strong link between being overweight/obese, inflammation and metabolic diseases. Because fat tissues emit a high rate of pro-inflammatory signals, they contribute to insulin resistance while simultaneously building ever-larger fat deposits and thereby increasing the likelihood of cardiovascular and other problems. It appears that omega-7 (palmitoleic acid) turns on fundamental energy-regulating systems that result in greater sugar and fat burning and much less storage of these molecules, thus profoundly benefiting our metabolism.

Omega-7 fatty acids, in the form of palmitoleic acid, are to be found in macadamia nut oil, sea buckthorn oil, and avocados. More marine sources of omega-7s are anchovies and salmon, as well as cod liver oil.

In some ways, omega-7s are the new kid on the block. At the time of writing, it doesn’t come up in that many studies but this situation is changing rapidly. It appears to be a fruitful area for future research with great promise in the area of fat metabolism. A particularly rich source of omega-7s, very much in vogue at the moment, is Sea Buckthorn Oil.

sea buckthorn oil for omega 7 fat

Omega-9 Fatty Acids

Omega-9 fatty acids are also a type of monounsaturated fat. The ‘9’ refers to the position of the final, and only, double-bond in the molecule’s chain. This means that the bond in question is to be found nine carbon atoms from the omega end of the fatty acid molecule. Our bodies can produce omega-9s either, hence these fats are not referred to as ‘essential’, though it might be wise to consume some from our diets.

The most common form of omega-9s is Oleic acid, which is also the most common monounsaturated fatty acid in most Western people’s diet. Recent studies have found that consuming oleic acid regularly has a protective effect against disease (7). Diets high in monounsaturated fats tend to have less inflammation and better insulin sensitivity than those high in saturated fat according to a 2015 study (8).

Omega-9s will generally be consumed in foods containing omega-3s. Examples would be fish, seafood, some animal fats, walnuts, and avocado.


At the time of writing, early 2021, fat remains a controversial issue. This is perhaps particularly the case with saturated fat. A recent meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology points out “There is no robust evidence that current population-wide arbitrary upper limits on saturated fat consumption in the United States will prevent CVD or reduce mortality” (9). Unfortunately, browsing through the internet will render many out-of-date articles that still demonise saturated fat consumption. There is a lot of dietary politics at play here, a subject I will avoid getting into for now. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this article is that we should not fear dietary fats, on the contrary, many are essential for the maintenance of good health and vitality. We should, however, be aware of which fats are of some danger, this being particularly the case with trans fats, and which are perfectly safe in a normal diet.


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