What Are Fatty Acids and Why Do We Need Them?

Posted by Barsha Dey

Healthy fat salmon, avocado, oil, nuts. Selective focus

What are fatty acids? How are they different from fats? The importance of fatty acids in human nutrition is immense. They, like carbohydrates, fats and proteins are also present in the food we eat. Read on to know all about fatty acids and why do we need them.

What Are Fatty Acids?

Fats are organic compounds made up of carbon and hydrogen which remain solid at room temperature. Fatty acids are long chains of hydrocarbon that serve as building blocks for lipids. Lipids are a class of macromolecules which have important structural and functional roles in our cells. 

How Are They Different From Fats?

Fats are one of three macronutrients (the other two being carbohydrates and proteins) which are important for maintaining a balanced diet and good health. The fatty acid structure includes three fatty acids in combination with a molecule of glycerol (which is not a fatty acid) to form fats. In other words, the fats in our foods, upon digestion are broken down to form fatty acids which are absorbed into our bloodstream.

fatty acids
Three fatty acids combine with a molecule of glycerol to form fats.

What Are The Different Types of Fatty Acids?

Fatty acids act as a major source of energy for us. They also have several other functional roles in the body. They vary depending on properties such as their degree of saturation, the length of their carbon chains, and location of double bonds within the chains. There are two types of fatty acid based on the degree of saturation. They are – saturated fatty acids and unsaturated fatty acids.

Saturated fatty acid comprises hydrogen and carbon atoms with single bonds between the carbon atoms. The degree of saturation is a measure of the number of single bonds in a fatty acid. For example, a saturated fatty acid will contain only single bonds between the carbon atoms whereas an unsaturated fatty acid will contain both single and double bonds. Unsaturated fatty acids have at least one (but generally more) double bond between the carbon atoms.

Know more about unsaturated fatty acids here!

Some foods rich in saturated fats include red meat, chicken, milk and milk products. Foods rich in unsaturated fats include meats, avocado, nuts and vegetable oils.

The unsaturated fatty acid can be further classified as a monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acid. Monounsaturated fatty acid includes omega-7 and omega-9 fatty acid. Polyunsaturated fatty acid includes omega-6  and omega-3 fatty acid, also known as essential fatty acids because they cannot be synthesized by our body but are essential for good health.

Read about monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids here!

The saturation of fatty acids affects its physical characteristics and storage properties within the body. Hydrogenation is an artificial process which chemically adds more hydrogen molecules to polyunsaturated fats to make them more saturated. As a result, this leads to the formation of trans fatty acids or trans fats.

Why is the importance of fatty acids in human nutrition?

They have many critical roles in the body such as:

  • oxygen transport throughout the body
  • energy production (when glucose, a form of sugar, is not available)
  • healthy development of tissues and organs
  • proper brain functioning
  • lowering cholesterol and reducing the risk of heart disease
  • skin health and maintenance
  • immune system health
  • cellular signalling

Thus, the roles and functions of different fatty acid in our body are complex and differ greatly depending on its nature. Each fatty acid has its own benefits as well as health hazards. To gain a better understanding read our other articles on fats!

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