Delicious goodies at the bakery and convenient meals at fast food restaurants may be hard to resist, but the health risks that come with them are equally hard to ignore. These foods are often laden with trans fats, which are unhealthy and put the individual at high risk for obesity and heart disease. Knowing more about trans fats can help consumers make better food choices for healthier living.
About Trans Fat
Food sources like animal fats, fish oil, vegetable oil, nuts, and seeds contain fatty acids. Fatty acids are fuel for the body. Healthy fatty acids are called monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. These are found in fish, nuts, and vegetable oils just to name a few sources.
Most animal fats are saturated fats, which are not good for you and should be eaten in moderation.
But there are other types of fatty acids called trans fats or trans fatty acids. Trans fats are present in many processed foods. They are made through a process known as hydrogenation. Hydrogenation occurs when hydrogen gas is passed through liquid vegetable oil, forming trans fats. These trans fats are more solid and stable than naturally occurring fats and have a longer shelf life, which makes them a popular choice for commercial food manufacturers.
Trans fats are considered harmful because they increase the level of low density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad”) cholesterol, and decrease the level of high density lipoprotein (HDL or “good") cholesterol. HDL cholesterol, takes excess cholesterol back to the liver. Trans fats decrease the level of HDL cholesterol in the body, which results in the accumulation of excess cholesterol.
In addition, when LDL cholesterol increases in the body, it causes atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is when fat and cholesterol becomes deposited in the walls of the arteries and narrows them. Blood flow to the heart becomes reduced, leading to heart disease.
Trans fats also increase triglycerides (fats in blood), which can lead to atherosclerosis and raise the risk for heart attack, diabetes, and heart disease. Trans fats also damage cells lining the blood vessels, which causes inflammation.
Harmful trans fats are present in several popular foods that line grocery store shelves.
If it comes out of a box, there is a good chance the food contains trans fats.
To avoid buying food that has been processed with trans fats, read the nutrition label.
If the words "partially hydrogenated" oil or "shortening" is on the label, the product contains trans fats.
There are a wide variety of healthier substitutes for foods containing trans fats.
Instead of buying commercial salad dressings, which can be high in partially hydrogenated oils, preparing homemade salad dressings with high quality flaxseed, sesame, or olive oil is recommended. Sprinkle sunflower seeds or slivered nuts on salads instead bacon pieces or croutons. Substitute avocado slices for processed cheese on sandwiches.
Margarine can be purchased with no partially hydrogenated oils. As always, whole grains, fresh fruits, vegetables, oats, bran, beans, dry peas, rice, and cereal should be included in the diet.
When dining at a restaurant, ask what kind of oil is used for cooking and request that olive oil be substituted if partially hydrogenated oil is used.
In 2006, New York City was the first city to ban artificial trans fats in all restaurants. California was next to follow suit and now several other states and cities have implemented full or partial bans on trans fats.
Denmark was the first country to introduced laws regulating the sale of foods with trans fats, while the UK Faculty of Public Health and Royal Society of Public Health have called for the total elimination of trans fats in the United Kingdom by 2011.
With or without laws and regulations governing the use of trans fats, it is ultimately up to the consumer to make healthier food choices that limit trans fats from the diet.