Fats are lipids


Fats are elegant little molecules, each one made of three long hydrocarbon tails attached to a little coathanger-like molecule called glycerol. Like the other large biological molecules, they play essential roles in the biology of humans and other organisms. (Also, many recent dietary studies see sugar as causing a lot more health problems than fat!)

Fats are just one type of lipid, a category of molecules united by their inability to mix well with water. Lipids tend to be hydrophobic, nonpolar, and made up mostly of hydrocarbon chains, though there are some variations on this, which we'll explore below. The different varieties of lipids have different structures, and correspondingly diverse roles in organisms. For instance, lipids store energy, provide insulation, make up cell membranes, form water-repellent layers on leaves, and provide building blocks for hormones like testosterone.

Fats and oils

A fat molecule consists of two kinds of parts: a glycerol backbone and three fatty acid tails. Glycerol is a small organic molecule with three hydroxyl (OH) groups, while a fatty acid consists of a long hydrocarbon chain attached to a carboxyl group. A typical fatty acid contains 12–18 carbons, though some may have as few as 4 or as many as 36.

Fat molecules are also called triacylglycerols, or, in bloodwork done by your doctor, triglycerides. In the human body, triglycerides are primarily stored in specialized fat cells, called adipocytes, which make up a tissue known as adipose tissue1^11start superscript, 1, end superscript. While many fatty acids are found in fat molecules, some are also free in the body, and they are considered a type of lipid in their own right.

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