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1. Understand Fats

The food science that centers around fat is simple. Fats are simply chains of carbon molecules bonded with hydrogen molecules and attached to a glycerol molecule. There are three kinds of fat: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. These terms define the type of bonds that the carbon molecules form with one another and with the hydrogen molecules.

Carbon molecules can bond with four other molecules in various formations. In saturated fats, all the carbon molecules are singly bonded to each other and with two hydrogen molecules. In monounsaturated fats, one of the carbon-to-carbon bonds is a double bond without two hydrogen molecules. In polyunsaturated fats, there are two or more double-bonded carbon molecules.

When hydrogen is introduced into a polyunsaturated fat, the hydrogen molecules begin to bond with the double-bonded carbon molecules. If they line up on the same side of the chain, the configuration is called cis. If the hydrogen molecules line up on opposite sides of the chain, the configuration is called trans. Heat and pressure force the hydrogen molecules to line up in the trans configuration.

In the cis configuration, which is the natural form of mono-and polyunsaturated fats, the positioning of the hydrogen molecules makes a kink in the chain. As a result, they cannot pack closely together, so the fat will remain liquid at room temperature. In the trans configuration, the hydrogen molecules pair up on opposite sides of the carbon molecules. This positioning straightens out the chain, so the molecules pack closely together, making a fat that is solid or semisolid at room temperature.

Unlike fiber-filled foods that move quickly through your system, 95 percent of consumed fat is absorbed into your body. This high absorption rate means that almost every bit of fat that you eat stays with you, causing weight gain and a slow metabolism if you eat more than your body can handle. You’ll learn about the various types of fat commonly found in the foods you eat and how to avoid the fat trap—keeping your metabolism high and your body healthy!

2. Learn How to Read Fat Content Labeling

Food labeling will definitely help you identify fat content, but you need to understand the rules of labeling to really know if what you are reading is an accurate reflection of the item’s fat content. According to U.S. government regulations, foods containing less than 0.5 gram of fat per serving are called fat-free, which sounds great. If, however, you eat three or four servings, trace fat content adds up. Also, the more generic labels give 3 grams of fat or less per serving the title low-fat. Products containing at least 25 percent less fat than the original version earn the title reduced fat.

3. Beware of Hidden Trans Fat

Just because something is listed as having 0 percent trans fat, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is completely trans-fat free. In terms of labeling, it’s important to note that trans fat may not be listed. If the words partially hydrogenated, margarine, or shortening appear in the ingredients list, the product contains some artificial trans fat. Ingredients are listed in decreasing amounts, so if the hydrogenated fat or shortening appears toward the beginning of the list, each serving probably has close to 0.5 gram of trans fat. If it appears toward the end of the list, there are probably close to 0 or 0.1 gram of trans fat per serving. If you purchase and eat processed foods, look for the phrase no trans fat. In this labeling, zero doesn’t mean zero, but no means what it says.

Labels sometimes use the terms partially hydrogenated and hydrogenated interchangeably, so avoid products that use either phrase. The words esterification or esterified are also red flags indicating fats that have been manipulated with chemicals.

4. Don’t Abandon All Fats

Even though you hear a lot of bad things about fat, it is a necessary nutrient when consumed in the right amounts. Fat helps supply energy for aerobic exercise in the form of fatty acids and may help you lose weight. Fat also protects your organs by insulating them against the cold, helps to make cell walls permeable so that necessary nutrients can flow between the cells and the blood, and serves as a building block for hormones. It is important to keep fats in your diet but to eat the right types in limited quantities.

5. Choose Good Fats

Medium-chain saturated fats, like those found in coconut oil, need very little processing by the body to be absorbed and used. They are quickly metabolized in the liver and aren’t stored in the body. These fats are a good source of quick energy and do not contribute to heart disease; in fact, they may protect against inflammation in the body. Medium-chain saturated fats also have antimicrobial properties.

Rice bran oil, avocado oil, flaxseed oil, nut oils, grapeseed oil, and extra-virgin olive oil are all good choices. Browse through a natural-foods store or food co-op and really look at the oils lining their shelves. Read labels and browse the Internet for information about these fats and oils.

6. Understand Unsaturated Fats

Unsaturated fats—when consumed in moderation—can be good for you as well. In fact, some, like the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish can help the heart and even lead to an increase in weight loss. Unsaturated fats come in four varieties: monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, omega-3 fatty acids, and trans fats. Trans fats should be avoided, but the other three types help by lowering LDL cholesterol levels and decreasing the risk of heart attacks. Monounsaturated fat is found in olive and canola oil, nuts, and avocados; polyunsaturated fats are found in fish, peanut butter, and some seeds.

7. Understand Saturated Fats

Saturated fats—or “bad fats”—are the major dietary cause of high cholesterol. They are found in animal foods and products (like beef, pork, ham, and sausage); dairy products, especially whole dairy products (like whole milk, cheese, cream, and ice cream); and oils (like cottonseed oil and palm kernel oils). These fats are typically solid at room temperature.

8. Understand Natural Trans Fat

Naturally occurring trans fat is made when bacteria in the stomach of ruminant animals (cows and sheep) transform some of the fats found in plant material into the trans configuration. This means that products like milk, cheese, cream, beef, and lamb have small amounts of naturally occurring trans fat. Unlike artificial trans fat, these natural fats are actually good for you. In your body, they are transformed into CLA, or conjugated linoleic acid, which has a positive effect on heart function. CLAs also help protect against free-radical damage to cells, which helps boost your metabolism and protect you from developing cancer (especially of the breast and colon).

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