By Dr. Bruce Fife

Whenever the subjects of nutrition and diet are brought up eventually the terms saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats get thrown around. Sometimes they are viewed in a favorable light and sometimes not. Unfortunately, most people have no idea what saturated or unsaturated means or what consequences they have on health.


ronically, what most people consider to be healthy is not, and what they view as unhealthy is just the opposite.

I want to explain the differences so you won't be confused and so you can make wise dietary choices. The following explanation is a little technical, but I think you will be able to follow along.

Oils are composed of fat molecules called fatty acids. There are three categories of fatty acids: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. Contrary to popular belief, there are no pure saturated fats in nature. The same is true with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. All dietary fats and oils contain each of the three types of fatty acids. For example, olive oil is referred to as a monounsaturated oil because it is composed predominately of monounsaturated fatty acids (77%). However, it also contains 14% saturated fat and 9% polyunsaturated fat. Safflower oil is referred to as a polyunsaturated oil; it contains 78% polyunsaturated fat, 13% monounsaturated fat, and 9% saturated fat.

You may wonder what makes a saturated fat different from a polyunsaturated fat, and what is saturated fat saturated with? Here we get a little technical, bear with me please. Fats are composed of hydrogen and carbon atoms. Every carbon atom in the fatty acid can hold onto two hydrogen atoms. When all the carbon atoms are attached to as many hydrogen atoms as possible, it is called saturated. So it is saturated with hydrogen atoms. If a pair of hydrogen atoms is missing the fat is called monounsaturated. If two or more pairs of hydrogen atoms are missing it creates a polyunsaturated fat. That's the difference.

The presence or absence of hydrogen atoms on the fatty acids is very important in terms of health. A fatty acid that is saturated with all the hydrogen atoms it can hold, is in a state of balance of equilibrium and is very stable under a variety of conditions. When hydrogen atoms are missing, this creates instability within the fatty acid allowing it to be very reactive to its environment. The more hydrogen atoms that are missing, the more unstable it becomes. Exposure to oxygen molecules in the air (or water or wherever there is oxygen) causes the oxygen to attach itself to the fatty acid on the spot where the hydrogen atoms are missing. This creates a chemical change called oxidation. When oil becomes oxidized it turns rancid. Rancid oils are very dangerous because they create health destroying free radicals. Free radicals are oxidized molecules that set off chemical chain reactions that are destructive to every molecule with which they come into contact. A single free radical can set up a chain reaction that can destroy thousands of molecules in seconds. When we eat oxidized fats we are eating substances that set off thousands of free-radical chain reactions in our bodies, which damage and weaken hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of cells. Free radicals are the primary cause of cancer and have been identified as the cause, or at least a contributing factor, in over 60 common diseases. So you see, they are not your friends and you need to avoid them completely.

In the next issue I will tell you which oils are most vulnerable to oxidation and which ones you need to avoid.

Dr. Bruce Fife is a certified nutritionist and Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine. He has written 18 books and serves as the publisher of Piccadilly Books/Health Wise Publications.

The Healing Crisis by Bruce Fife, N.D. is available for $6.50 and his audio tape Understanding the Healing Crisis is $3.00 each or 10 for $22.00.

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