Mr. Norris, I’m trying to read more food labels as you advise, but I’m completely confused with the list of fats. What are the differences among saturated, trans, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats? – “Feverish Over Fats,” Santa Barbara, Calif.

Good for you for reading more labels. Package marketing is only a ploy to get you to purchase the goods and often doesn’t reflect the true ingredients within.

However, it takes some time to learn the label language, so be patient with yourself.

Fats are at the forefront of the confusion but actually bring great clarity to the contents once you’re saturated in their portly rhetoric.

Though fats essentially are made up of the same elements, they have varying structural differences, which prompt differing bodily reactions – some negative and some positive.

All fats are a combination of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. Their degree of saturation varies (based upon how many hydrogen atoms they carry), which in turn determines whether a fat is solid or liquid (oil) at room temperature.

Saturated fatty acids carry the most hydrogen atoms. Unsaturated fatty acids do not carry all the hydrogen atoms they could hold. If one pair of hydrogen atoms is missing, the fatty acids are called monounsaturated (found in olive, canola and peanut oils). If two pairs or more of hydrogen atoms are missing, the fatty acids are called polyunsaturated (found in corn, sesame and safflower oils).

Highly saturated fats come from animal source foods, such as cheese, butter, milk, cream and red meat. Two vegetable oils – coconut and palm kernel oils – are also highly saturated. Generally, a product’s consistency at room temperature tells you about its potency in saturated fats; classic examples are the high amount of saturated fats in hard cheese and the low amount in cottage cheese. If consumed in high amounts, saturated fats are your enemy and dangerous to your health because they raise your level of low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, also known as “bad cholesterol.”

Unsaturated fats are those that make up monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and oils. We’ve long known that saturated and trans fats are harmful, but we have learned more recently that monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats actually lower the risks of heart disease and cancers, especially when consumed in appropriate amounts. Plants and fish are healthy sources of unsaturated fats, being largely liquid at room temperature.

Monounsaturated fats are found in a variety of foods and oils. Good sources include nuts, seeds, olives and olive and canola oils.

The Mayo Clinic reports: “Studies show that eating foods rich in monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) improves blood cholesterol levels, which can decrease your risk of heart disease. Research also shows that MUFAs may benefit insulin levels and blood sugar control, which can be especially helpful if you have type 2 diabetes.”

Polyunsaturated fats are largely found in plant-based foods and oils, but they’re also in oily and fatty fish. Some great sources include trout and salmon (containing omega-3 fatty acids, which are a heart-healthy type of polyunsaturated fatty acid), walnuts, sesame and pumpkin seeds and safflower and sunflower oils.

The University of California Berkeley Wellness Letter reports that “replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat (as in most vegetable oils and margarine) improves cholesterol levels. It also significantly reduces the risk of heart disease, according to a recent Harvard analysis of eight clinical trials in the open-access journal PLoS Medicine.”

Trans fats have been proved to be terrorists to our bodies and are found in highly processed foods. These subtle fats have been laced for decades in a host of our manufactured foods, such as shortening, margarine, puddings, potato chips, cookies, crackers, buttered popcorn, breads, breakfast cereals, doughnuts, french fries and other foods made with or fried in partially hydrogenated oils. Manufacturers hydrogenate – or add hydrogen to – polyunsaturated vegetable oils in order to give them (and the processed foods made with them) a more solid consistency and longer shelf lives. Trans fats increase the risk of coronary heart disease, lowering levels of good cholesterol and raising levels of bad cholesterol, among other chronic health detriments.

I’m glad to see that food industries finally are raising red flags about the not-so-clear and present danger of trans fats, most of which are created commercially. Government regulations have mandated industries to list trans fats separately from other fats on their product labels. Nevertheless, it’s important for every consumer to know that a product with less than 0.5 grams can be advertised legally as “0 grams of trans fat.” So read the labels for the words “partially hydrogenated.” If they’re there, trans fats are present, despite the fact that the label denies it.

Remember that all fats and high-fat foods are high in calories and can lead to weight gain and obesity, which can be detrimental to your cardiovascular health. So balance your diet. The fact is that a diet low in saturated and trans fats and rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fiber and lean protein is optimal for your health and weight.

The Diabetes Prevention Program revealed that type of balanced diet reduces by two-thirds the risk of diabetes among high-risk individuals. The Lyon Diet Heart Study revealed that such a diet reduces heart attacks. And a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported greater satisfaction, less hunger and weight loss in individuals when fat was reduced to 20 percent of the total calories in their diets, protein was increased to 30 percent and carbs accounted for 50 percent.

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