Fats Not Created Equal

Whether solid or liquid, the fats that we consume are broken down into fatty acids and glycerol in the body. In turn, the body uses them to form other lipids, which are used for a variety of bodily functions. When fat is stored in your body, it's in the form of a triglyceride.

In scientific terms, fatty acids are chains of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. They may be saturated or unsaturated. The term "saturation" refers to how many hydrogen atoms link to each carbon in the chain.

  • When carbon atoms have as many hydrogens attached as possible on the chain, a fatty acid is saturated.
  • When hydrogen atoms are missing, the fatty acid is unsaturated. A polyunsaturated fatty acid has two or more missing hydrogen pairs; a monounsaturated fatty acid is missing one hydrogen pair on its chemical chain.

Now what makes margarine different from vegetable oil? The fatty acid content. All foods with fats have a mixture of fatty acids: saturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated. The proportion and differences in fatty acid content account for their varying characteristics—for example, liquid oil as compared with firm margarine. Their degree of saturation also has a significant role in how fatty acids from food affect health.

  • By contrast, fats that contain mostly polyunsaturated fatty acids usually are liquid at room temperature. Safflower, sunflower, corn, and soybean oils contain the highest amounts of polyunsaturated fats.
  • Foods with mostly monounsaturated fatty acids are liquid at room temperature. They're found in more significant amounts in some vegetable oils, such as canola, olive, and peanut oils.

Besides fats and oils, the proportion of fatty acids varies in other fat-containing foods. For example, seafood and meat both have saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. However, seafood has a higher proportion

At a Glance: How Dietary Fat Affects Blood Lipids

Type of Fatty Acids






Effects on Blood Lipids

T total cholesterol, T LDL cholesterol

I total cholesterol, I LDL cholesterol, I HDL cholesterol*

I total cholesterol, I LDL cholesterol, may T HDL cholesterol*

I triglycerides, I total cholesterol*

T total cholesterol, T LDL cholesterol, may I HDL cholesterol

*Unsaturated fatty acids may have a beneficial effect if they replace saturated fats, but not if they're simply added, making the diet higher in fat.

of polyunsaturated fatty acids; meat, more saturated fatty acids.

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