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Are All Fats Created Equal?

Fat comes in a variety of packages; some are more harmful than others. In addition to watching your total fat intake, you must also pay attention to the type of fat you take in. Let's start from the beginning and figure out what's what in the world of fat.

First, here's all of the “fat vocabulary” you will ever need to speak like an expert at your next social function:


Omega-3 fat supplements can be a useful tool for helping to lower triglyceride levels, improving digestive disorders, and reducing the symptoms of arthritis. Speak with your physician if you think you may benefit.


All types of fat wen eaten in excess can cause weight gain, but overloading on saturated fat, specifically, can also put you at risk for serious health problems, including heart disease.

Is it better to use butter or margarine?

Butter is loaded with saturated fat; margarine is packed with trans-fatty acids. Which one do you choose? Although both contain artery-clogging fat, a serving of butter contains more artery-clogging fat than most margarines. Give your blood vessels a break and only buy soft tub margarine spreads that also say “trans free” on the label. If you're looking to save additional calories, buy reduced-fat, trans-free soft tub spreads.

  • Triglycerides. The general term used for the main form of fat found in food. The structure of a TG (that's fat slang for triglyceride) is a glycerol (carbon atoms linked together) plus three fatty acids. There are several triglyceride categories, and depending upon the fatty acid composition, a TG is classified as saturated, monounsaturated, or polyunsaturated.

    You may also hear about your “triglyceride level” when the doctor takes your blood. That's because TGs, like cholesterol, are a storage form of fat in your body—circulating in the bloodstream and deposited in adipose tissue (better known as flub).

  • Monounsaturated fats. As mentioned earlier, the molecular composition of a triglyceride can vary. When one double carbon bond is present in the fatty acid molecule (c=c), the fat is grouped as “monounsaturated” (one spot that is not saturated). Olive oils, peanut oils, sesame seed oils, canola oils, and avocados are high in monounsaturated fat. According to studies, these fats may help to lower blood cholesterol. But go easy with that olive oil if your weight is an issue. This "good" fat is still loaded with fat calories.
  • Polyunsaturated fats. Another type of unsaturated fat is polyunsaturated. Where a “mono” has one double carbon bond, the “poly” fat has several (c=c=c) spots that are not saturated. Corn oils, cotton seed oils, safflower oils, sunflower oils, soybean oils, and mayonnaise are all predominant in polyunsaturated fat. The fat in fish is also polyunsaturated (a type called omega-3 fatty acids). Didn't think fish had any fat? Well, it does (especially mackerel, salmon, albacore tuna, and sardines), but much less than most meats. What's more, the poly-fats have also been shown to help reduce the risk of heart disease. So fish away—just don't fry it.
  • Saturated fats. When triglyceride molecules contain only single carbon bonds (c-c-c, unlike the double bonds you saw in mono- and polyunsaturated), the fat is grouped as “saturated.” Saturated fats are the demons of all fats because they can raise your blood cholesterol, which, in turn, can lead to heart disease. Hard to believe a simple molecular change can make such a difference, but it can, and these guys are destructive. Animal fats found in meat, poultry, and whole milk dairy products are all high in saturated fats. Although most vegetable oils are unsaturated, some “saturated” exceptions include coconut, palm, and palm kernel oils (found in cookies, crackers, nondairy creamers, and other baked products). Do your body a favor: make a concerted effort to cut back on these fats. You'll help protect yourself from heart disease, certain cancers, and other potential health problems.
  • Trans-fatty acids. This type of fat is not naturally occurring but is created when innocent unsaturated fats undergo a manufacturing process called hydrogenation. Hydrogenation is when a liquid or semisoft fat is transformed into a more solid state. Trans-fatty acids can be harmful because they act like saturated fats inside the body and raise blood cholesterol. Why mess with a good thing and “hydrogenate?” The process can help preserve food or enable a food company to change the texture of a product. For example, margarine in the liquid form is unsaturated, but with some hydrogenation, it becomes semisoft (tub margarine). With further hydrogenation, it becomes hard (stick margarine). Unfortunately, most people prefer tub and stick over liquid margarines and end up paying the “trans-fatty” penalty. Other trans-fatty culprits include partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, commonly found in cakes, crackers, cookies, and other baked goods. If you ever read the ingredients on food products, you'll know that trans-fats are everywhere.

    Starting in 2006, trans fats will be listed on food labels, making it easier for you to spot (and avoid) them. Because of this new labeling act, food manufacturers have already started reformulating their products to make them trans-fat free.

  • Most Fats Contain Combinations of All Three Types of Fat
    but Are Predominantly One Type
    Saturated Monounsaturated Polyunsaturated
    Beef fat Canola oil Corn oil
    Butter Olive oil Cottonseed oil
    Whole milk Peanut oil Safflower oil
    Cheese Sesame oil Soybean oil
    Coconut oil Most nuts Sunflower oil
    Palm oil Avocados Margarine (soft)
    Palm kernel oil   Mayonnaise
        Fish oils
        Sesame oil
        Flaxseed oil

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Total Nutrition © 2005 by Joy Bauer. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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