Difference between Fat and Cholesterol

Intense media campaigns built around body image, along with explosive news pieces with great editorial and less scientific value, have led to a general misunderstanding of fat and cholesterol, what they are, why they are harmful and when we need them. These words usually enter the vocabulary of people trying to lose weight and look and feel good. However, if it sounds absurd to you that there is good fat and that the body needs it then you really should continue reading this article.


Fat is a macronutrient important in any healthy person’s diet as it is vital for many body functions. It keeps the body warm, it protects the organs and it is our natural supply of energy. They are either liquid or solid, and both are known as lipids, animal fats and vegetable fats. They are found in mostly any type of food and they are not directly responsible for obesity and all the problems associated with being over-weight. Excess consumption of fatty foods and specific types of fat is what causes health problems.

Fat vs Cholesterol
A selection of high fat foods

Naturally, fat is found in its unsaturated form. However, recent dietary changes with the introduction of fast food and taste enhancers have created the trans-fats. These are artificial fats, hiding on labels under the name of “partially hydrogenated”, even in cases in which the products have the 0% fat sign upfront. They may taste better, keep better, have a better consistency, but they are considerably worse for the body if consumed in large quantities and for extended periods of time.

On the other hand, fats naturally found in foods such as nuts, salmon, avocados, grapes, olives and olive oil, mainly the foods you find in the Mediterranean diet, are very good for health. They do not have curative properties, but eating these instead of other foods can lower the risk of developing heart diseases and they do not cause obesity when consumed in normal amounts. Omega 3 is probably the most popular polyunsaturated fatty acid and it is contained by all of the above mentioned healthy foods.

Cholesterol is a lipid, a molecule that the body of all animals synthesizes. It is an essential component of cell membranes and it induces the production of hormones, vitamin D and substances that help in the digestive process. Since plant cells do not synthesize it, it also means that it can only be found in animal products, including breast milk. It is produced by the body to comply with its essential needs, but it can also be contained by some types of foods.

Inside the body, cholesterol travels through the bloodstream in the form of lipoproteins (fat on the inside, protein on the outside) which are, in their turn, identified as low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high density lipoproteins (HDL). LDL is also known as the “bad cholesterol” because it can cause arteries to block if found in great amounts, thus leading to a number of heart problems. HDL is known as the “good cholesterol” because it carries cholesterol from other parts of the body to the liver, which is the body’s natural cholesterol removal unit.

Fat vs Cholesterol

So, what is the difference between fat and cholesterol?

While both fat and cholesterol are essential for the organism, knowing how to find the right consumption balance is vital. Eating the right kind of fat can keep the body healthy and fit. Going for the tastier, addictive foods which contain trans-fats and which are a constant temptation (burgers, pizza, French fries, sweets, sauces) can cause excess fat which, apart from the risk of obesity, also runs the risk of increasing the level of LDL in the bloodstream. This is the condition commonly identified as having high blood cholesterol.

While finding the right way to eat foods which are rich in good fats and cutting down on foods which obviously have trans-fats can be a difficult balancing act, it is still better than cutting fat out of the diet altogether. You need both fat and cholesterol for the body to work well, but in controlled amounts.

Comparison Chart

Fat Cholesterol
A lipid A lipid
Is found in food Is produced by the body
In normal amounts: protects the organs, keeps the body warm, is a source of energy In normal amounts: helps with the production of certain hormones, vitamin D and contributes to the digestive process
In excess: can lead to obesity and the increase of cholesterol levels in the blood In excess: can lead to heart diseases and diabetes