Friday, October 14, 2011

Fats 101: the First in a Series

I had the idea for this post when I posted a link on Facebook for an article that was discussing the impact of essential fatty acids (EFAs) on Alzheimer’s risk. As soon as I posted it I realized that EFA’s (omega 3’s and 6’s) is one of those topics where there is a lot of conflicting information so no one knows what to believe. I knew this because I have been that confused person. As I have told you many times I have no “formal” science training unless you count the e-Cornell certificate which I don’t think counts. When I was in college in my teens and twenties the only “science” courses I had was computer science (which doesn’t count) and statistics (only related on the periphery).

Given my educational background once I realized that cancer and I needed to have a show down I felt a bit ill equipped for the battle. I taught myself what I know about science and believe me I struggled tremendously in the beginning. There were actually times when I was tears because I was so confused and I knew that I needed to “get it”. Believe me you don’t want to be under the gun like I was trying to learn something that is unlike everything else you have been taught. My quest to understand nutrition, health and science began in early 2004 and now I am finally starting to feel very comfortable that I have a good solid understanding of the basics. I realize that I know more about nutrition and health than most people but I am still a work in process and probably always will be. I also know that is much more for me to learn, but at least I have a solid foundation to build on now. *whew* Essential fatty acids were tough for me so I want to break it down for you so that you get it too.

Initially I had planned to write about EFAs in one post and be done. However once I started writing I realized that is a big topic that should be broken down into smaller bite-sized chunks to make it easier for everyone to digest (pun intended). I am not doing anyone any good if I throw out a lot of information but it doesn’t make complete sense. Instead you will be a seeing a number of posts on this topic that will build on each other. Hopefully that approach will make this subject click for everyone. As you are reading this series of posts if anything doesn’t make sense or you want clarification let me know. I really want everyone to get his because I think it is vital to our collective health. Ok here goes nothing. ;-)


What are fats? What makes fat different from protein, or carbohydrates? Do you know? Well if you do you are much better at this than I was back in 2004. ;-) Fats (aka lipids) are a macronutrient that is very energy dense (in other words it contains a lot of calories 9 per gram to be exact compared to 4 per gram for carbs and protein and 7 per gram for alcohol). Lipids are insoluble (don’t mix well) with water. Fats are made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms. The major fats that we carry are: fatty acids, triglycerides, phospholipids and sterols. I will explain all of these during my “fat series”.

Fats are formed by a chain of carbon atoms. These carbon atoms are linked to hydrogen by chemical bonds. These carbon chains have two ends one is the alpha end and the other is the omega end. The alpha end of the chain contains the carboxylic acid group and the other end contains the methyl group. The omega system is a naming convention that tells you where the first double bond is located relative to the methyl end of the molecule. Specifically for an omega 3 fatty acid the first double bond is located between the third and fourth carbons from the omega end of the chain. Simple right?

Saturated versus Unsaturated:

Omega 3’s and omega-6’s are both unsaturated fatty acids. We can spot an unsaturated fatty acid easily because they are more liquid at room temperature. Saturated and unsaturated are chemistry terms which only refer to whether the carbons in the chain are fully saturated with hydrogen. In other words every position on the carbon chain is filled by hydrogen. In an unsaturated fatty acid there will be at least one carbon-carbon double bond in the backbone of the chain.

Cis and Trans Double Bonds:

You also need to know that unsaturated fats can have either cis or trans double bonds. This refers to the way the hydrogen atoms are arranged at the carbon-carbon double bonds on the chain. Cis double bonds are natural but trans double bonds are man-made. I wanted to point this out so that you knew that man-made trans fats are unsaturated but that doesn’t make them healthy. You need to read ingredient labels to make sure that you don’t see any “partially hydrogenated” fats in the ingredient list. Does the term hydrogenated make more sense now? Remember earlier we discussed that saturated and unsaturated is related to the hydrogen on the carbon chains?

Short-chain and Long-chain:

When you read about short or long-chain fatty acids all this really refers to is the length of the carbon chain. Fatty acids with fewer than 8 carbons are called short-chain. Those with 8-12 carbons are medium-chain and those with more than 12 carbons are long-chains.

Chain length has an impact on both the melting and boiling points of fat. The short-chain omega fats have lower melting and boiling points. Additionally short-chain fats are more water-soluble. Since humans are mostly water short-chain fats are easier for us to absorb.

Specific Fatty Acids:

There are a number of fatty acids and each has its own name. These fatty acids are:

palmitoleic acid – omega 7
oleic acid – omega 9
linoleic acid – omega 6
linolenic acid – omega 3
arachidonic acid – omega 6
eicosapentaenic acid (EPA) – omega 3
docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) – omega 3

Of these omega acids only two are essential which only means that the body cannot make them and therefore we need to consume them. These are linoleic and linolenic acid. Why can’t the body make these two? For some reason the body can not add a double bond in a fatty acid chain prior to the ninth carbon from the methyl end. The body can use the linoleic to make longer-chain arachidonic acid. Additionally we can turn linolenic into longer-chain EPA an DHA though conversion rates vary.

There is a lot more to learn about fats but I think this is a good place to stop for today. Tomorrow I will talk more about omega 3 and 6 fatty acids and how this relates to inflammation and why you need to balance your intake. Don’t forget to let me know if any of this in unclear since this is the basics that we are going to build on with future posts.


It rained most of the morning and early afternoon and I was not looking forward to running errands in the rain. Typically I would not refer to myself as a girly girl but I really hate rain messing up my makeup (assuming I have bothered to wear it that is).

Anyway I checked on my parent late morning and started running errands for Dan and me. I had an entire reusable grocery bag of books, CDs and DVDs to return to the library. I know, I know, I am not right. One of the CDs was a day late so I had to pay a fine. It was a biggie, $0.25. Since the books don’t get checked instantly when you drop them off I distracted myself a five minutes looking at the new releases. I told myself that I still had 7 books at home that I was reading so I didn’t need any more. Who can read 7 books in three weeks? Needless to say I have no self control when it comes to reading and I came out for 4 more books. I swear that I need help when it comes to reading. Maybe I need to start “Over Readers Anonymous”. LOL

After the library I headed for the boat because we had left the thru-hull opening for the sink in the opened position. For those of you that don’t boat there are literally holes on the bottom of boats for water to enter and exit. Some are for the engine, air conditioning, sinks, etc. We only had the sink drain opened last night but we both forgot to close it. While it probably wouldn’t have been a problem it was still a good idea to close the valve just to be safe.

I wasn’t at the boat long so I only had time to put a few finishing touches on this post, upload and drink some green tea. However I would much rather be on the computer at the boat than at home so I am not complaining.

This evening we are going to see David Sanborn in Annapolis. I have my “real” camera with me tonight and will try to get a few good shots. I have been a fan of David Sanborn for years so I am really looking forward to tonight.

Happy thoughts:

• The morning and early afternoon rain is already starting to clear up and I can see quite a bit of blue sky trying to peek through the clouds. *woo hoo* The weather people may actually be right about this weekend. :-)

• I picked up a few interesting books at the library today and am looking forward to reading those soon. I am such an information junky it isn’t funny. ;-)

• It is starting to feel a lot of sweater season here and that meant I got to wear a cute red Calvin Klein long sleeve sweater that I picked up a Marshall’s marked down to $19.99. As you can tell I really love a good bargain. For those of you who share my bargain hunting passion find a Marshall’s, Ross or TJ Maxx in a neighborhood that serves a different demographic. When you do you will shocked but what great finds you can pick up.

Signing Out:

I need to rush and get this uploaded before I drive to Dan’s office to pick him up for the concert. I hope you have something fun planned for this weekend too. Talk with you again soon, hopefully tomorrow. I seem to be back on a roll with daily posts. Let’s hope I can keep this up for a while. ;-)

1 comment:

  1. I shall read your fats articles with interest - I know I consume too much fat, and I do try to restrict them, particularly the hydrogenated ones - keep it coming:) Thanks


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