Saturated vs. Unsaturated Fatty Acids: What’s the Difference?

Saturated vs. Unsaturated Fatty Acids: What’s the Difference?

Products are quick to brag about their lack of saturated fats. Some products proudly declare their fats "heart healthy" even though their calorie count is through the roof.  It all has to do with the difference between "saturated" and "unsaturated" fats. Here, we examine what that difference can mean to your health.

Filling up the Carbon Train

There is a chemical difference between saturated and unsaturated fats. They are both made up of carbon chains that have hydrogen atoms attached to them. The difference is whether or not the chain is completely full of hydrogen attachments. Imagine a train pulling many boxcars behind it. This train is a carbon chain. In the case of saturated fats, each boxcar of this train is full to the brim with hydrogen. The train is saturated fully in this hydrogen. If the train happens to be pulling a few empty boxcars, it is unsaturated.

Why Are Saturated Fats Less Healthy?

Saturated fats have gained the reputation as the "bad" fats. Consumed in high rates, they are believed to clog arteries and bring about heart disease. This is because of what happens to saturated fats inside your blood steam. Once inside, saturated fats seek each other out and bond together. Unsaturated fats do not do this. When saturated fats begin to stick together, if there are enough of them, they form plaque. This plaque gets caught inside arteries and begin to clog them, making healthy circulation less likely.

Saturated Fats in Food

Saturated fats are used in a lot of todays foods. Fats that stay solid at room temperature, such as butter, coconut oil or animal fat, are usually saturated and need to be eaten in sparing amounts. Saturated fats are also commonly used in pre-packaged foods, as one of their advantages is that they do not spoil quickly. It is not necessary to completely avoid all saturated fats, unless you doctor tells you to do so. Saturated fats have a place in the human body, as evidenced by the high content of saturated fat in breast milk. But, if you are concerned about the amount of plqaue causing fat in your diet, you might want to consider substituting unsaturated fats for saturated fats, whenever possible.

Unsaturated Fats in Food

Unsaturated fats are the "healthy fats" you hear so much about. They are fats that are derived from plants, such as olive or vegetable oil. Their unstable chemical composition makes them stay liquid at room temperature. It also makes it harder for their molecules to stick together inside your body, rendering them less likely to form into artery clogging plaque. Unsaturated fats are not calorie-free, and less likely to make you gain weight. They are simply a gentler option on your body, a benefit that can only be realized when they are used instead of saturated fats, not in addition to them. This means cooking with olive oil instead of butter, or taking an avocado sliced over your salad instead of steak strips.

By now you know that even though fat has a place in a healthy diet, most of us don't need to worry about getting enough. In the fats you do consume, always be looking for the healthiest option. Choose unsaturated fats for a healthier heart.