Learning More About Trans Fats
Education is key to learning the facts behind this fatty acid's bad name
The blood level of trans fats in a percentage of the U.S. population has dropped between 2000 and 2009, according to researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This suggests that people are becoming more aware of the risks created by trans fats and are adjusting their diets accordingly. While these results are encouraging, J. Russell Harrington, MD, an internist at St. Joseph’s/Candler’s Primary Care on the Islands, believes that more knowledge is needed about what trans fats are, what their effects are, and how the foods in which they are contained are marketed.
“Trans fats are frowned upon, but how much do people really know?” Harrington asks, noting that when he talks with patients about trans fats, many are aware that they shouldn’t consume them but are not sure why.
“Most trans fats do not occur in nature,” Harrington says. “Manufacturers added hydrogen to mostly unsaturated fatty acids to prevent oxidation in their foods. This led to a much longer shelf life and often to a more pleasant flavor and texture.”
The problem with this new chemical make-up was that it destroyed vitamins that were inside the fatty acid and also prevented fat-soluble vitamins from binding to it and being transported to tissue. A detrimental effect on cholesterol was also discovered—trans fats have been shown to lower HDL, the good cholesterol, and raise the bad, LDL. High LDL is a risk factor for heart disease.
“Fatty acids are different from cholesterol but they affect it,” Harrington says. “Trans fats also affect the blood vessels. Since they are not as easily transported as other types of fatty acids, they are more prone to fat deposition within the vessels.”
Dr. Harrington cites the American Heart Association’s recommendations when determining the level of trans fat consumption for an individual. A limit of 1 percent of daily calories can help lower your risk, no matter what your personal calorie intake might be. This is where consumers need to be aware of the mismatch between what’s written on the front of their package of food and the information on the back.
“Even if the box says ‘no trans fat,’ you may still be getting some,” Harrington says. “The Food and Drug Administration allows that claim for products that have 0.5 grams of trans fat. Half a gram here and half a gram there can quickly add up to the recommended daily limit and beyond.”
Dr. Harrington also notes that if consumers see the words “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredients, that is an indication of trans fats within. But he is also wary of the low-fat brands that reinforce the popular belief that all fats are bad.
“Fats aren’t bad and calories aren’t bad,” Harrington says. “We need fat for proper cell function and we need calories for energy. The question is, in what form are you getting these fats and how much are you taking in?”
Education is the key to making smart choices when it comes to eating foods with fat, and the risk factor from trans fat is modifiable. That equates to reading labels and cutting out or down on a slew of favorite foods, from chicken nuggets to cake to microwave popcorn. Other foods that need a look before you buy are baked goods, frozen foods, spreads such as margarine and toppings such as gravy and salad dressing.
“In a way, it’s empowering because we can change it,” Harrington says. “But it’s work.”