- 1 Nomenclature of fatty acids
- 2 Saturated vs. unsaturated fatty acids
- 3 Omega−3 vs. Omega−6
- 4 Essential fatty acids
- 5 Trans vs. cis fat
- 6 Fat as an energy reservoir
- 7 Dietary fat digestion and absorption by the human body
- 8 Fat transportation
- 9 Triglycerides biosynthesis
- 10 Fatty acids biosynthesis
- 11 Fat as an energy supply
Saturated fats, trans-fats and omega-6 oils are all over-supplied in modern foods; they should be reduced in your diet. Omega-3 oils are under-consumed and should be increased for your health.
Fat is an indispensable building material for every single cell. It also serves as the primary energy reserve in humans and animals. In the last several decades, overweight and obesity have become epidemics in developed countries due to excessive energy intake and subsequent fat storage. Nevertheless, we cannot live without fat.
The storage and transportation form of fat is called triglyceride. Each triglyceride molecule is composed of one glycerol and three fatty acid molecules. Fatty acids are molecules with a long hydrocarbon chain attached to a carboxyl group. The fatty acids can vary from one triglyceride molecule to another and within one triglyceride molecule depending on their availability. Free fatty acids are also components of cell membranes, precursors for many biologically active molecules, and direct substrates for energy production via the beta oxidation pathway.
Nomenclature of fatty acids
Most natural fatty acids contain even numbers of carbon atoms in straight chains. Commonly accepted nomenclature for fatty acids is the letter ‘C’ followed by total number of carbon atoms and the total number of double bonds separated by a colon. For example, stearic acid is C18:0 (18 carbons, no double bond), arachidonic acid is C20:4 (20 carbons, four double bonds) and docosahexaenoic acid is C22:6 (22 carbons, six double bonds).
Saturated vs. unsaturated fatty acids
Fatty acids can be separated into two types: saturated and unsaturated. Fatty acids without any double bonds between carbon atoms are called saturated fatty acids (SFA). Fatty acids that contain double bonds between carbon atoms are called unsaturated fatty acids. Unsaturated fatty acids are further classified to MUFAs (monounsaturated fatty acids), which have only one double bond, and PUFAs (polyunsaturated fatty acid), which have two or more double bonds. Consumption of SFAs is associated with increased LDL cholesterol and a higher risk for cardiovascular diseases. Consumption of unsaturated fatty acids (regardless of MUFA or PUFA) is associated with decreased LDL cholesterol and a lower risk for cardiovascular diseases.
Omega−3 vs. Omega−6
PUFAs can be further subdivided into two types: omega-3 fatty acids, which are also known as ω-3 fatty acids or n-3 fatty acids in nutrition literature, and omega-6 fatty acids, also known as ω-6 or n-6 fatty acids.
Omega-3 fatty acids are PUFAs with double bonds starting after the third carbon atom from the methyl end of the carbon chain. The most commonly mentioned omega−3 fatty acids in nutrition literature are α-linolenic acid (ALA, C18:3), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA, C20:5), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA, C22:6). Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fish oils, algal oil and many plant seeds oils. They provide many health benefits in relation to cardiovascular disease prevention, anti-inflammation and possible anti-cancer functions.
Omega-6 fatty acids are PUFAs with double bonds starting after the sixth carbon atom from the methyl end of the carbon chain. The most common omega-6 fatty acids are linoleic acid (LA, C18:2) and arachidonic acid (AA, C20:4). Linoleic acid is an essential fatty acid for the human body and is abundant in plant oils. Arachidonic acid is not an essential fatty acid because it can be synthesized in the body from linoleic acid. Meat, dairy products, and eggs are the major food sources of arachidonic acid. omega-6 fatty acids play important structural and regulatory roles in a normal cell, but eating too much of them can increase risks for heart attacks, thrombotic stroke, arrhythmia, arthritis, osteoporosis, inflammation, mood disorders, obesity, and cancer. A detailed description of omega-6 vs. omega-3 fatty acids and their impacts on human health is available here.
TABLE 1. COMMON NATURAL FATTY ACIDS IN THE HUMAN DIET
|SFA||Lauric||C12 : 0||coconut fat, palm kernel oil|
|Myristic acid||C14 : 0||milk, coconut fat|
|Pamitic acid||C16 : 0||palm oil, milk, butter, cheese, cocoa butter,
|Stearic acid||C18 : 0||palm oil, milk, butter, cheese, cocoa butter,
|MUFA||Palmitoleic acid||C16 : 1||marine animal oil|
|Oleic acid||C18 : 1||olive oil, canola oil, most dietary fat|
|ω-6 PUFA||linoleic acid (LA)||C18 : 2||corn oil, soybean oil, sunflower seed oil, peanut oil|
|Arachidonic acid (AA)||C20 : 4||small amount in animal fat|
|Arachidonic acid (AA)||C20 : 4||small amount in animal fat|
|ω-3 PUFA||α-Linolenic acid (ALA)||C18 : 3||flaxseed oil|
|Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)||C20 : 5||fish oil, marine algae|
|Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)||C22 : 6||fish oil, marine algae|
Essential fatty acids
Essential fatty acids cannot be synthesized by the human body and must come from dietary intake. There are two essential fatty acids for humans: α-linolenic acid (ALA, C18:3, omega-3) and linoleic acid (LA, C18:2, omega-6). Essential fatty acid deficiency can result in retarded growth, dermatitis, kidney diseases and early death.
Trans vs. cis fat
For unsaturated fatty acids, the orientation of the two hydrogen atoms adjacent to a double bond has a major impact on the chemical properties of the molecule. When these two hydrogen atoms are orientated in opposite directions, they are called trans. When they are oriented in the same direction, they are cis. Most naturally occurring unsaturated fatty acids are cis. Trans-fat is rare in natural food sources but is abundant in processed food as a result of the artificial hydrogenation of natural oil. Trans-fat is easier to process but hydrogenation destroys the essential fatty acids which changes the properties of PUFA fat to those characteristic of saturated fatty acids. Trans-fats are considered a health hazard and are banned in some cities in the United States. The most abundant trans-fat is found in artificial butters (margarine).
Fat as an energy reservoir
Excess dietary calories are converted into and stored as fat in the form of triglycerides. When the body requires energy, such as during times of fasting or inadequate calorie intake, stored triglycerides are broken down to three fatty acid chains and one glycerol molecule in a process called lipolysis. The three fatty acids provide energy through a process called the beta oxidation pathway. The major product of the beta oxidation pathway (acetyl-CoA) enters another process called the TCA cycle (tricarboxylic acid cycle, also known as Krebs cycle or the citric acid cycle) to produce even more energy. The glycerol molecule is converted into glucose, and gives cells energy via the glycolysis pathway and TCA cycle. Fatty acids can also be converted into ketone bodies, which refer to three molecules acetone, acetoacetic acid, and beta-hydroxybutyric acid. These molecules are valuable energy sources since they are water-soluble and easily transported across the blood-brain barrier. In the brain, ketone bodies can be readily converted to acetyl-CoA and fed into the Krebs cycle for energy production. During conditions where glucose is limited, the brain can get up to 70% of the energy it needs from ketone bodies.