Lipids are the building blocks of the fats and fatty substances found in animals and plants. They are microscopic layered spheres of oil, which, in animals, are composed mainly of cholesterol, triglycerides, proteins (called lipoproteins), and phospholipids (molecules made up of phosphoric acid, fatty acids, and nitrogen). Lipids do not dissolve in water and are stored in the body to serve as sources of energy.
Cholesterol is a white, powdery substance that is found in all animal cells and in animal-based foods (not in plants). In spite of its bad press, cholesterol is an essential nutrient necessary for many functions, including:
- Repairing cell membranes
- Manufacturing vitamin D on the skin's surface
- Producing hormones, such as estrogen and testosterone
- Possibly helping cell connections in the brain that are important for learning and memory
Regardless of these benefits, when cholesterol levels rise in the blood, they can have dangerous consequences, depending on the type of cholesterol. Although the body acquires some cholesterol through diet, about two-thirds is manufactured in the liver, its production stimulated by saturated fat. Saturated fats are found in animal products, meat, and dairy products.
Triglycerides are composed of fatty acid molecules. They are the basic chemicals contained in fats in both animals and plants.
Lipoproteins are protein spheres that transport cholesterol, triglyceride, or other lipid molecules through the bloodstream. Most of the information about the effects of cholesterol and triglyceride actually concerns lipoproteins.
Lipoproteins are categorized into five types according to size and density. They can be further defined by whether they carry cholesterol or triglycerides.