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A lipid is an organic compound such as fat or oil. Organisms use lipids to store energy, but lipids have other important roles as well. Lipids consist of repeating units called fatty acids. Fatty acids are organic compounds that have the general formula CH 3 (CH 2 ) n COOH, where n usually ranges from 2 to 28 and is always an even number. There are two types of fatty acids: saturated fatty acids and unsaturated fatty acids.
Saturated Fatty Acids
In saturated fatty acids , carbon atoms are bonded to as many hydrogen atoms as possible. This causes the molecules to form straight chains, as shown in Figure below . The straight chains can be packed together very tightly, allowing them to store energy in a compact form. This explains why saturated fatty acids are solids at room temperature. Animals use saturated fatty acids to store energy.
Unsaturated Fatty Acids
In unsaturated fatty acids , some carbon atoms are not bonded to as many hydrogen atoms as possible. Instead, they are bonded to other groups of atoms. Wherever carbon binds with these other groups of atoms, it causes chains to bend (see Figure above ). The bent chains cannot be packed together very tightly, so unsaturated fatty acids are liquids at room temperature. Plants use unsaturated fatty acids to store energy.
Lipids and Diet
Humans need lipids for many vital functions, such as storing energy and forming cell membranes. Lipids can also supply cells with energy. In fact, a gram of lipids supplies more than twice as much energy as a gram of carbohydrates or proteins. Lipids are necessary in the diet for most of these functions. Although the human body can manufacture most of the lipids it needs, there are others, called essential fatty acids , that must be consumed in food. Essential fatty acids include omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Both of these fatty acids are needed for important biological processes, not just for energy.
Although some lipids in the diet are essential, excess dietary lipids can be harmful. Because lipids are very high in energy, eating too many may lead to unhealthy weight gain. A high-fat diet may also increase lipid levels in the blood. This, in turn, can increase the risk for health problems such as cardiovascular disease. The dietary lipids of most concern are saturated fatty acids, trans fats, and cholesterol. For example, cholesterol is the lipid mainly responsible for narrowing arteries and causing the disease atherosclerosis.
Source: Bozeman Science
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