Lipids Definition

“Lipids are organic compounds that contain hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen atoms, which forms the framework for the structure and function of living cells.”

What are Lipids?

These organic compounds are nonpolar molecules, which are soluble only in nonpolar solvents and insoluble in water because water is a polar molecule. In the human body, these molecules can be synthesized in the liver and are found in oil, butter, whole milk, cheese, fried foods, and also in some red meats.

Let us have a detailed look at the lipid structure, properties, types and classification of lipids.

Also read: Biomolecules 



Properties of Lipids

Lipids are a family of organic compounds, composed of fats and oils. These molecules yield high energy and are responsible for different functions within the human body. Listed below are some important characteristics of Lipids.

  1. Lipids are oily or greasy nonpolar molecules, stored in the adipose tissue of the body.
  2. Lipids are a heterogeneous group of compounds, mainly composed of hydrocarbon chains.
  3. Lipids are energy-rich organic molecules, which provide energy for different life processes.
  4. Lipids are a class of compounds distinguished by their insolubility in water and solubility in nonpolar solvents.
  5. Lipids are important in biological systems because they form the cell membrane, a mechanical barrier that divides a cell from the external environment.

Also Read: Digestion and Absorption of Lipids

Lipid Structure

Lipids are the polymers of fatty acids that contain a long, non-polar hydrocarbon chain with a small polar region containing oxygen. The lipid structure is explained in the diagram below:

Lipid Structure

Lipid Structure – Saturated and Unsaturated Fatty Acids

Classification of Lipids

Lipids can be classified into two major classes:

  • Nonsaponifiable lipids, and
  • Saponifiable lipids.

Nonsaponifiable Lipids

A nonsaponifiable lipid cannot be broken up into smaller molecules by hydrolysis. Nonsaponifiable lipids include cholesterol, prostaglandins etc

Saponifiable Lipids

A saponifiable lipid contains one or more ester groups, allowing it to undergo hydrolysis in the presence of an acid, base, or enzymes, these include triglycerides, waxes, phospholipids, and sphingolipids.

Each of these categories can be further broken down into non-polar and polar lipids.

Nonpolar lipids, such as triglycerides, are used for energy storage and fuel.

Polar lipids, which can form a barrier with an external water environment, are used in membranes. Polar lipids include glycerophospholipids and sphingolipids.

Fatty acids are important components of all of these lipids.

Types of Lipids

Within these two major classes of lipids, there are several specific types of lipids important to live, including fatty acids, triglycerides, glycerophospholipids, sphingolipids, and steroids. These are broadly classified as simple lipids and complex lipids.

Also read: Biomolecules in Living Organisms

Simple Lipids

Esters of fatty acids with various alcohols.

  1. Fats: Esters of fatty acids with glycerol. Oils are fats in the liquid state.
  1. Waxes: Esters of fatty acids with higher molecular weight monohydric alcohols

Complex Lipids

Esters of fatty acids containing groups in addition to alcohol and a fatty acid.

  1. Phospholipids: Lipids containing, in addition to fatty acids and alcohol, a phosphoric acid residue. They frequently have nitrogen-containing bases and other substituents, eg, in glycerophospholipids the alcohol is glycerol and in sphingophospholipids the alcohol is sphingosine.
  1. Glycolipids (glycosphingolipids): Lipids containing a fatty acid, sphingosine, and carbohydrate.
  1. Other complex lipids: Lipids such as sulfolipids and amino lipids. Lipoproteins may also be placed in this category

Precursor and Derived Lipids

These include fatty acids, glycerol, steroids, other alcohols, fatty aldehydes, and ketone bodies, hydrocarbons, lipid-soluble vitamins, and hormones. Because they are uncharged, acylglycerols (glycerides), cholesterol, and cholesteryl esters are termed neutral lipids. These compounds are produced by the hydrolysis of simple and complex lipids.

Some of the different types of lipids are described below in detail.

Fatty Acids

Fatty acids are carboxylic acids (or organic acid), often with long aliphatic tails (long chains), either saturated or unsaturated.

  • Saturated fatty acids

When a fatty acid is saturated it is an indication that there are no carbon-carbon double bonds. The saturated fatty acids have higher melting points than unsaturated acids of the corresponding size due to their ability to pack their molecules together thus leading to a straight rod-like shape.

  • Unsaturated fatty acids

If a fatty acid has more than one double bond, then this is an indication that it is an unsaturated fatty acid.

“Most naturally occurring fatty acids contain an even number of carbon atoms and are unbranched.”

Unsaturated fatty acids, on the other hand, have a cis-double bond(s) that create a kink in their structure which doesn’t allow them to group their molecules in straight rod-like shape.

Role of Fats

Fats play several major roles in our body. Some of the important roles of fats are mentioned below:

  • Fats in the correct amounts are necessary for the proper functioning of our body.
  • Many fat-soluble vitamins need to be associated with fats in order to be effectively absorbed by the body.
  • They also provide insulation to the body.
  • They are an efficient way to store energy for longer periods.

Also Read: Fats


Waxes are “esters” (an organic compound made by replacing the hydrogen with acid by an alkyl or another organic group) formed from long-chain carboxylic acids and long-alcohols.

Waxes are seen all over in nature. The leaves and fruits of many plants have waxy coatings, which may protect them from dehydration and small predators.

The feathers of birds and the fur of some animals have similar coatings which serve as a water repellent.

Carnauba wax is valued for its toughness and water resistance (great for car wax).



Membranes are chiefly made of phospholipids which are Phosphoacylglycerols.

Triacylglycerols and phosphoacylglycerols are similar, however, the terminal OH group of the phosphoacylglycerol is esterified with phosphoric acid instead of fatty acid which leads to the formation of phosphatidic acid.

The name phospholipid comes from the fact that phosphoacylglycerols are lipids that contain a phosphate group.



The chemical messengers in our bodies are known as hormoneswhich are organic compounds synthesized in glands and delivered by the bloodstream to certain tissues in order to stimulate or inhibit the desired process.

Steroids are a type of hormone which is usually recognized by their tetracyclic skeleton, consisting of three fused six-membered and one five-membered ring, as shown in the diagram above. The four rings are designated as A, B, C & D as noted in blue, and the numbers in red represent the carbons.


  • Cholesterol is wax-like substance, found only in animal source foods.  Triglycerides, LDL, HDL, VLDL are different types of cholesterol found in the blood cells.
  • Cholesterol is an important lipid found in the cell membrane. It is a sterol, which means that cholesterol is a combination of steroid and alcohol. In the human body, cholesterol is synthesized in the liver.
  • These compounds are biosynthesized by all living cells and are essential for the structural component of the cell membrane.
  • In the cell membrane, the steroid ring structure of cholesterol provides a rigid hydrophobic structure that helps boost the rigidity of the cell membrane. Without cholesterol, the cell membrane would be too fluid.
  • It is an important component of cell membranes and is also the basis for the synthesis of other steroids, including the sex hormones estradiol and testosterone, as well as other steroids such as cortisone and vitamin D.

Examples of Lipids

There are different types of lipids. Some examples of lipids include butter, ghee, vegetable oil, cheese, cholesterol and other steroids, waxes, phospholipids, and fat-soluble vitamins. All these compounds have similar features, i.e. insoluble in water and soluble in organic solvents, etc.

Also Refer:  Vitamins and Minerals 

To know more about what are lipids, its definition, classification, lipid structure, types, and other related topics, keep visiting BYJU’S Biology

Frequently Asked Questions

What are lipids?

Lipids are organic compounds that are fatty acids or derivatives of fatty acids, which are insoluble in water but soluble in organic solvents. For eg., natural oil, steroid, waxes.

How are lipids important to our body?

Lipids play a very important role in our body. They are the structural component of the cell membrane. They help in providing energy and produce hormones in our body. They help in proper digestion and absorption of food. They are a healthy part of our diet if taken in proper amounts. They also play an important role in signalling.

How are lipids digested?

The enzyme lipase breaks down fats into fatty acids and glycerol, which is facilitated by bile in the liver.

What is lipid emulsion?

It refers to an emulsion of lipid for human intravenous use. These are also referred to as intralipids which is the emulsion of soybean oil, glycerin and egg phospholipids. It is available in 10%, 20% and 30% concentrations.

How are lipids metabolized?

Lipid metabolism involves oxidation of fatty acids to generate energy to synthesize new lipids from smaller molecules. The metabolism of lipids is associated with carbohydrate metabolism as the products of glucose are converted into lipids.

How are lipids released in the blood?

The medium-chain triglycerides with 8-12 carbons are digested and absorbed in the small intestine. Since lipids are insoluble in water, they are carried to the bloodstream by lipoproteins which are water-soluble and can carry the lipids internally.

What are the main types of lipids?

There are two major types of lipids- simple lipids and complex lipids. Simple lipids are esters of fatty acids with various alcohols. For eg., fats and waxes. On the contrary, complex lipids are esters of fatty acids with groups other than alcohol and fatty acids. For eg., phospholipids and sphingolipids.

What are lipids made up of?

Lipids are made up of a glycerol molecule is attached to three fatty acid molecules. Such a lipid is called triglyceride.



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