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There really is a difference between the effects of saturated fat, unsaturated fat, and trans- fat on your health. But the most important risk factor in your diet for your cardiovascular health isn't fat at all.

Doctors all over the world, and especially in the United States, by and large have become obsessed fat. Body fat is bad. Dietary fat is bad. Unsaturated fat is also bad, but saturated fat is worse, and trans-fat is worse still. Or so most of us are told.

What's the Difference Between the Kinds of Fat?

On a purely chemical basis, the difference between the three best-known kinds of fat has to do with how predictably the body can process them.

Every molecule of fat can be drawn with a “backbone” of a string of carbon atoms. In saturated fat, each carbon atom in the molecule bonds to one carbon atom on either side, like this:

C – C – C – C – C – C

Since carbon atoms can form up to four bonds altogether, in a saturated fat, every carbon in the middle of the molecule bonds to two other atoms or ions and the carbons on the ends can bond to three. When a fat molecule is saturated, it doesn't have any room for unpredictability. The body has to process saturated fat the same way it each and every time, and it is a lot more likely for the process to go wrong.

What Is Unsaturated Fat?

In unsaturated fat, at least one pair of carbon atoms is joined with a double bond, something like this:

C = C – C – C – C – C

Carbon atoms, however, can form up to four bonds. This means that body can process unsaturated fat in many different ways, making sure it is burned as fuel rather than converted into the forms of LDL cholesterol (not all LDL cholesterol is actually harmful) that can harden and stiffen the linings of blood vessels throughout the body. That's why unsaturated fat is generally considered

What Is Trans- Fat?

In trans- fat, the carbon atoms don't line in a nice, neat row. They gather into a configuration something like a broken arrow with a barb on one end.

C

/

C – C – C – C

/

C

The problem with this kind of “broken arrow” is that it is the perfect configuration for getting stuck. Trans- fats tend to get stuck in the delicate membranes of cells, part of the molecule going in, and part of the molecule sticking out. When this happens, the end of the fat molecule that isn't transported into the cell tends to be oxidized but not in a mitochondrial “furnace” of the cell. It simply burns a hole in the lining of the cell, leaving it vulnerable to damage.

But that's not the worst thing that happens with fat and cholesterol.

Fat, Saturated Fat, Trans- Fat, Cholesterol, and Calcification in the Arteries

The enemy of cardiovascular health really isn't fat. Think about if for a moment. Fat is squishy. In the warm of the body, fat in the lining of arteries isn't substantial enough to impede the flow of blood (except in the most extreme cases).

Cholesterol is squishy, too. Many cold creams use pure cholesterol as a carrier. It would not be possible to slather them on your skin if cholesterol in its pure state didn't stay smooth and spreadable. But the cholesterol that causes clogged arteries is hard. When cholesterol hardens into plaque, arteries lose their flexibility, and eventually a clot gets stuck in the artery and causes a heart attack or stroke.

Calcium Is the Culprit

How does that happen?

While the broken arrow of trans- fat make cause fatty substances to get stuck in the lining of the artery, it takes calcium to harden it into a dangerous plaque. When there is too much calcium in the bloodstream, it is available to harden into plaque.

So how do you get excess calcium out of your bloodstream? It's not like you should stop eating dairy products or taking calcium supplements. (Sorry, vegans, while the percentage of calcium in greens is in fact greater than the percentage of calcium in dairy products, greens are mostly water, far moreso than dairy, and it's just not possible to get all your calcium or protein from veggies. You aren't a cow.) Ironically, however, people who take more than 1,500 mg of calcium supplements per day or who drink more than four glasses of milk per day are especially vulnerable to hardening of the arteries.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Couvreur S, Hurtaud C, Lopezet C, et al. The linear relationship between the proportion of fresh grass in the cow diet, milk fatty acid composition, and butter properties. J Dairy Sci 206, 89(6), 1956-69.
  • McCann JC, Ames B. Vitamin K, an example of triage theory: Is micronutrient inadequacy linked to diseases of aging? Am J Clin Nutr 2009 Oct, 90(4): 889-907.
  • Photo courtesy of bingramos on Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/bingramos/3205711233

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