Types of Dietary Fat and How They Affect our Cholesterol Levels

The Four Types of Fat:

Saturated Fat:

I’ll spare everyone the full chemistry lesson, but saturated fat derives its name from the hydrogen atoms that exist between the carbon atoms. In others words this fat is saturated with hydrogen. Saturated fats are very stable, freeze easily, and are typically solid at room temperature. As such, they resist oxidation and can last a long time before going rancid.

What’s the big deal with oxidation? Well, free oxygen atoms (or free radicals) are harmful to the body—think of what happens to a fire when you add more oxygen. Then imagine that happening inside your cells. When we talk about burning fat or glucose for energy it’s not figurative; our cells literally use controlled internal combustion to create energy from these fuels. If free oxygen enters the cell the controlled burn is compromised, destroying it down to its DNA. When we break down oxidized molecules during digestion, the oxygen atoms escape and run free throughout our bodies. This is also why anti-oxidants are touted as beneficial for our health, as they help our bodies resist the effects of free oxygen.


Monounsaturated Fat:

Monounsaturated fats have one point in each molecule where the carbon atoms are joined together without a hydrogen atom to separate them. This lack of a hydrogen atom leaves space for a free oxygen atom to bond with the molecule, which makes unsaturated fats more susceptible to oxidation and less stable, meaning they will go bad sooner than saturated fat. Unsaturated fats tend to be liquid at room temperature, and are commonly referred to as oils.

Polyunsaturated Fat:

These fats contain two or more points in each molecule where the carbon atoms are joined together without a hydrogen atom to separate them. This leaves multiple spaces for free oxygen atoms to bond; consequently polyunsaturated fats become rancid much faster than other fats.

Trans Fat:

Trans fat is created in a laboratory from polyunsaturated fats by forcing hydrogen atoms (as in hydrogenated) to bond with the carbon atoms, artificially turning unsaturated fats into saturated fats. Trans fatty acids are a byproduct of this process. Why would people do such a thing? It makes cheap and incredibly shelf-stable fats for use in processed food.  Imagine the fabled Twinkie and its nuclear holocaust survivability.  One of the reasons the Twinkie remains pristine for so long is because it is loaded with hydrogenated and trans fats.  Well, perhaps not so much anymore, since trans fats have been banned by the FDA, so Twenty-First Century Twinkies may not be the Official Dessert of the Apocalypse like their Twentieth Century predecessors were.


Conventional dietary wisdom tells us that saturated fats are bad for us and unsaturated fats are healthy, that we should consume fats that are only liquid at room temperature and shun those that are solid, but I hope I’ve managed to dispel this outdated quackery in my previous post.  Instead, think natural versus unnatural fats, or minimally processed versus heavily processed fats. How do you make olive oil? Press some olives. How do you make corn oil? Press some corn? Good luck–an ear of corn has less than one gram of fat. How do you make canola oil? Well, I just get some canola at the store and… wait, what the hell is a canola?


It’s also important to understand that there are no sources of dietary fat that are solely one sort or the other.  For instance, lard is widely considered to be the worst of all fats, a greasy, demonic substance whose sole purpose is to clog our arteries with its abundance of saturated fat; meanwhile, olive oil is considered to be a nutritional messiah, destined to save us all from heart disease.  However, if we look at both of their compositions:

Lard is composed of 47% monounsaturated fat, 40% saturated fat, and 13% polyunsaturated fat.

Olive oil is 79% monounsaturated fat, 14% saturated fat, and 8% polyunsaturated fat.


Lard is only 40% saturated fat, not quite the devil it’s been made out to be even if saturated fat was actually unhealthy.  And supposing saturated fat is bad for us, what do we do about olive oil?  It contains saturated fat as well, and 14% is not a negligible amount if we’re to believe that any amount of saturated fat will send our cholesterol through the roof.  Which brings us to…


Let’s dispel a huge misconception: blood cholesterol level is unrelated to dietary cholesterol—that is, whether your cholesterol level that the doctor shows you at the end of your physical exam is good or bad, high or low, has absolutely nothing to do with how much cholesterol is in the food that you eat.  Our livers produce the cholesterol in our blood streams, and they do so regardless of whether we eat cholesterol or not.

All cholesterol is the same—there are no types of cholesterol. What is commonly referred to as good or bad cholesterol really refers to the various lipoproteins that shuttle cholesterol through the bloodstream.  Cholesterol is a fatty, waxy substance that does not dissolve in water (or blood), so our livers bond cholesterol molecules with lipoproteins to transport them to damaged cells for repair.  It is the size and consistency of these lipoproteins that are affected by our diets and can lead to arterial damage and heart disease.

Total Cholesterol Level does not take into account the type of lipoproteins or their ratios. A person with high HDL and low triglycerides (desirable) can have the same total cholesterol as someone with low HDL and high triglycerides (undesirable). Therefore, your Total Cholesterol Level is largely unimportant—it does not need to be under 200. Over 330 may indicate a problem, but the important concept to understand is that a high cholesterol number by itself does not cause heart disease; rather, it is the heart disease (or some other disease) which likely causes the body to raise cholesterol levels in an effort to repair whatever damage is occurring.


Types of Lipoproteins:

HDL: High Density Lipoprotein, usually referred to as “good cholesterol.” The higher this number is, the lower your risk for heart disease.

LDL: Low Density Lipoprotein, usually referred to as “bad cholesterol.”  However, your actual risk depends more on the shape and form of the LDL. LDL can either come in large fluffy particles, which travel through the bloodstream without incident and can be considered neutral, or it can come in small dense particles. These small, dense LDL are the real culprit for heart disease, as they are small enough to lodge themselves in the arterial wall and eventually oxidize and cause damage to the arteries.

Triglycerides (VLDL): Triglycerides are not technically cholesterol; rather, they are used to shuttle fatty acids through the bloodstream, and they themselves come in packages of Very Low Density Lipoproteins (VLDL). Regardless, you should ask the doc for this number along with your HDL and LDL levels. Ideally you want this number to be low compared to your HDL.

What is causes bad cholesterol, and how can I avoid it?

When we say bad cholesterol, what we actually are talking about are LDL and VLDL particles, and we don’t mean that these particles are bad all the time, but only when they linger in our bloodstream too long. Our bodies use these particles for a variety of functions, mostly to repair damaged cells, but we want them to get where they are going in a hurry, like they have a mission to justify their short existence, not just to hang out in the bloodstream bullshitting with their buddies like they’re under a union contract and getting paid by the hour. If they hang out in the bloodstream too long they invite oxidation, arterial damage, and heart disease.

Why do these particles stay in the bloodstream rather than clock in on time at their place of work? Being small and dense instead of light and fluffy. And what causes this difference in size and consistency? Sugar, white flour, starches, alcohol, and other high carbohydrate foods cause lipoproteins to be small and dense. Also refined, highly processed vegetable oils such as corn oil, soy oil, margarine, and any hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats or oils.

What makes these particles light and fluffy and ensures they get to where they are needed without getting caught up in the bloodstream? Minimally processed fats and oils—lard, butter, cream, and other animal fats and oils, and pressed vegetable oils like olive oil, coconut oil, sesame oil, peanut oil, etc.

How do you tell the difference between good vegetable oils and bad? Ask yourself if you could make it at home with a bit of work and some help from a Google search. As a general rule, if you can make it in your kitchen it’s good for you. If you can press it or grind it or render it at home it’s good for you. Lard, butter, cream, olive oil, and nut and seed oils can all be made in your kitchen. It may not be very practical, or enjoyable, or even cost-effective to make olive oil or cream in your kitchen, but it’s possible.

When I was five years old I remember sitting on the couch watching my mother churn butter in a Styrofoam cup with a straw. I think it took her an episode of MASH and an episode of Mary Tyler More to finish it, and it must have been a huge pain in the ass because I don’t remember her ever doing it again, but I thought she was some kind fairy/witch/genius for pulling it off.

Corn and soy oil cannot be made at home. They are superheated and super-pressurized in huge Breaking Bad blue meth-style vats, and if you did somehow defy chemistry and manage to make corn oil in your garage it would take roughly 50 pounds of corn to get a pound of corn oil. Conversely it takes 5-10 pounds of olives to press a pound of olive oil.


“So, I just got my blood cholesterol numbers from the doc, and he says I need to get my cholesterol under 200”. Maybe, maybe not. If your doc doesn’t explain the optimal ratios, which I’m about to do, and instead insists you start taking cholesterol lowering drugs, I’d get a second opinion.

Here are the ratios you’re looking for when it comes to your Blood Cholesterol Levels, and if the results of your physical exam don’t specify them, call your doc and insist that you get them.

HDL/Cholesterol level: Divide your HDL by your total cholesterol. It should be above 24% (0.24).

Triglyceride/HDL: Divide your Triglycerides by your HDL. It should be below 2% (0.02).

For my next post I’ll have something that’s actually useful–a grocery list and a delicious recipe for breakfast, lunch, and dinner that will build muscle and keep insulin levels low so that you can burn fat and still be full.  And you’ll find no sissy-la-la tofu or turkey bacon or any other such nonsense in any of it.

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