What Is a Fatty Acid? Types of Fatty Acids & Their Effects
Published by Dr. Venn-Watson
Dr. Eric Venn-Watson’s Highlights
- There are three main groups of fatty acids: monounsaturated fatty acids, polyunsaturated fatty acids, and saturated fatty acids, distinguished by how their hydrogen and carbon atoms bond.
- Unsaturated fatty acids have long been considered the “good kind” of fat, but recent studies show that certain kinds of saturated fatty acids can also be useful.
- Odd-chain saturated fatty acids like C15:0, found in fatty15, can help boost mitochondria, strengthen cell membranes, and more.
Americans have a love-hate relationship with fat. Before the late 1970s, no one considered the amount of fat in their diets, the sources of the fat, or how these lipids could affect their bodies. The American family diet consisted largely of red meat, starchy vegetables laden with full-fat butter, and large glasses of whole-fat milk.
There was just one problem: cardiovascular health was suffering.
Heart disease was affecting Americans in record numbers, and to combat this cardiovascular epidemic, the government issued broad and sweeping health guidelines. In 1977, the government told us to eat less fat (especially saturated fat) to protect our hearts. By 1980, official dietary guidelines read the same: fat is bad for you, especially saturated fat.
A few decades later, Americans had effectively exiled whole-fat dairy products, opting for skim, 2% milk, and margarine. There was a decrease in red meat consumption in the American diet, which was replaced by certain lean meats like chicken and pork.
The problem was that this diet change did not effectively improve public health. Instead, we saw a rise in obesity, type 2 diabetes, and even heart disease — especially among women and younger people.
A 2015 study revealed that there may not have been enough evidence to criminalize all fat in the first place. Maybe it was time to commute fat’s sentence, at least in part. Thus, scientists began studying different types of fat, their chemical makeups, and how they impacted our health.
What Are Fatty Acids?
Dietary fat (the fat in our food) isn’t just a number on a nutrition label. That number represents how many grams of a particular type of fatty acid is in our food.
A fatty acid is differentiated by the chemical structure of the fat we eat. The different types of fatty acids are determined by how the hydrogen atoms and carbon atoms in the fatty acids bond to one another and whether they are double bonds.
For the biochemistry nerds out there (which we’re proud to be, ourselves) — the fatty acid structure consists of a hydrocarbon chain with a carboxyl group (COOH) at one end.
Fatty acids can vary in length and bond structure, which means there is a vast number of possible fatty acids in nature. They can be categorized into groups such as long-chain fatty acids, which include oleic acid (think sunflower seeds, olive oil, and even meats and cheese), palmitic acid (soybean oil), and stearic acid (cocoa butter and lard).
Some fatty acids play essential roles in our health, including arachidonic acid (which is used to create the prostaglandins that help clot wounds), eicosapentaenoic acid, aka EPA (which can help support a healthy inflammatory response), and docosahexanoic acid, aka DHA (which is essential for brain development).
Fatty acids are the building blocks of the fat in our bodies and in the food we eat. Just as the glucose of carbohydrates and amino acids of protein are key players in how our bodies and brains can do all they do, so, too are the fatty acids of fats!
Four Different Types of Fatty Acids
There are four primary groups of fatty acids in our food:
- Trans fats
- Monounsaturated fatty acids
- Polyunsaturated fatty acids
- Saturated fatty acids
Within these groups are even smaller groups. Fat is more complex than we think. It’s important to learn about each type of fatty acid and determine whether or not it is beneficial to our diets.
All fat isn’t bad, but all fat isn’t good, either.
Ensuring we’re getting all the “good” fat we should without unknowingly taking in the “bad” fat along with it is key to making friends with fat.
Trans fats are saturated fats, but they aren’t saturated naturally. They are saturated through the process of hydrogenating unsaturated oils. This process converts liquid oils to solid fats to add to foods.
Generally, this is added to processed baked goods to add shelf life to their products. You’ll find these unsaturated fatty acids in pre-packaged baked goods like snack cakes, chips, and cookies. Studies support that trans fatty acids raise bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol, so avoiding them in your diet is best to avoid high triglyceridelevels.
It doesn’t appear that trans fats offer any redeeming health benefit, so you should only include them in your diet sparingly, if at all.
Monounsaturated Fatty Acids
Considered one of the good guys, monounsaturated fatty acids are abundant in nuts, seeds, avocados, and vegetable oils like sunflower, soybean, and canola, and olive oil.
Monounsaturated fatty acids are linked with lowered LDLcholesterol, which is important for keeping your heart healthy. Monounsaturated fats are also linked with keeping your cells healthy and ensuring their proper development.
Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids
You’re likely very familiar with this family of fatty acids. Polyunsaturated fats include both omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. These fatty acids— specifically, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and linoleic acid — are essential, which means our bodies need them to function properly, but our bodies cannot make them on their own. We have to get these fatty acids from our food.
While the most popular way of getting your omega fats into your diet has traditionally been to order a nice filet of salmon, you can now rely on fish oilsupplements to get your recommended daily allowance.
Although fish oilsupplements come with an unpleasant aftertaste, they’ve successfully encouraged people to get enough omega fatty acids in their diets.
Omega fatty acids are beneficial in many ways. They support:
- Heart health
- Blood sugar regulation
- Healthy blood pressure
- Brain function
- Proper cell growth
- Nervous system function
Having these in your diet is imperative, but it’s important to know you shouldn’t overdo it. Too much omega-6 in your diet has been linked to undesirable health issues and increased inflammation.
Saturated Fatty Acids
Saturated fat has been our enemy since those dietary guidelines were given in 1977. Even as we’ve learned more about fat, we’ve still managed to vilify saturated fat in its entirety.
The problem is that we’ve classified all saturated fat as bad fat.
Yes, there are different types of saturated fatty acids. While one type isn’t a great dietary option for anyone, a growing body of evidence supports that the other type is essential for all.†
Here’s a closer look at the two types of saturated fatty acids.
Even-chain saturated fatty acids.
When we talk about saturated fatty acids and how the two types are different, we are referring to how many carbon atoms they carry. If they carry an even number of carbon atoms, they’re even-chain saturated fatty acids.
Even-chain saturated fatty acids (like C16:0) are associated with increased heart and cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and inflammation. These are the fats that we should likely continue to avoid. Even-chain saturated fatty acids are found in whole dairy products, red meat, and meat products.
Odd-chain saturated fatty acids.
Odd-chain saturated fatty acids are so named because they carry an odd number of carbon atoms. These fatty acids, especially C15:0 (also called pentadecanoic acid), are nothing like their even-chain cousins regarding your health. An increase in C15:0 has been associated with good health results, like:*†
- Balanced immunity
- Heart health
- Healthy metabolism
- Red blood cell health
- Liver health
A growing body of evidence supports that C15:0 is the first essential fatty acid discovered in 90 years.† Science has shown that C15:0 can help the human body age more healthfully, starting with your cells.*† As our cells age, they begin to break down, becoming fragile and leaving us susceptible to age-related illness and oxidation.
You can get your daily intake of C15:0 in a simple, science-backed supplement called fatty15.*† Fatty15 is the only way to get the pure powder and vegan-friendly form of C15:0 (FA15™) to your cells without bad saturated fats (like even-chains) hopping along for the ride.
Science supports that fatty15 works to keep your cells supported and healthy by:*†
Strengthening cell membranes.
Fatty15 is a sturdy fatty acid that acts as armor for our cells, protecting them against premature breakdown.
Fatty15 keeps your mitochondria working hard. As we age, our mitochondria become sluggish, decreasing our cell’s energy output and increasing cellular stress. Fatty15 restores mitochondrial function so our cells get the energy they need.
Maintaining cellular homeostasis.
Our immune system and metabolism can become unbalanced over time. Fatty15 works to help keep our immune and metabolic systems functioning properly, so our cells and bodies remain balanced.
Not all fat is bad, but because we’ve excluded so much of it from our diets (especially the odd-chain saturated fatty acids), we’ve missed out on vital health benefits that could have kept us feeling better and living longer.† It’s time to change the game and gain the benefits of good fats that can keep us healthy and aging on our terms.
We can effectively change how we age, support our overall health, and live more healthful lives by adding a simple fatty acid into our diets.*† With the help of fatty15, you can give your cells a fighting chance to remain healthy as they age, which will help you feel better and be able to do the things you love to do, longer.*†
Eric Venn-Watson M.D.
Senior Scientist, Co-Founder
Eric is a physician, U.S. Navy veteran, and Co-founder and COO of Seraphina Therapeutics. Eric served over 25 years as a Navy and Marine Corps physician, working with the special forces community to improve their health and fitness. Seraphina Therapeutics is a health and wellness company dedicated to advancing global health through the discovery of essential fatty acids and micronutrient therapeutics.
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