What Is A Trans Fat?

If you are dealing with heart disease and high cholesterol, asking what is a trans fat is a very good question. In your quest to lower your cholesterol and triglycerides, one of the terms you should be aware of is ‘trans fats’ because they can kill you. Researchers who studied the effect of trans fats on our health tried to determine if there was any safe level of trans fats that we could eat. Guess what they discovered?

What Is Trans Fat?

Trans fats, also known as trans fatty acids, are man-made fats that have been around since the late 1800’s when the hydrogenation process was first discovered. The hydrogenation process led to making partially hydrogenated fat. This takes a liquid vegetable oil and makes it a solid. Crisco shortening is a great example of this. In fact, Crisco was one of the first manufactured food product that contained trans fats. Then came margarine.

A Brief History Of Trans Fat Use

During World War II, when butter was rationed, the use of trans fat increased because more people began using margarine and shortening. When food manufacturers discovered that trans fats helped to preserve food, they added it to their products to increase the shelf life. Now, foods didn’t become rancid. There was less waste, less spoilage and, more money to be made.

In 1957, The American Heart Association announced that saturated fats cause heart disease. Butter and lard fell out of favor. This led to an increase in the use of vegetable-based fats such as vegetables oils and trans-fats. All in the quest for heart disease prevention, as heart disease is our country’s number one killer.

The campaign against saturated fat continued on. In 1984, being pressured by consumer advocacy groups, fast-food restaurants switched their frying oils from beef tallow and tropical oils, both high in saturated fat, to partially hydrogenated oils, which contain trans fat. So now those french fries were supposedly better for you. Can you say ‘super-size me’?

Trans Fat Is Unhealthy

But, wait a minute- later, in the 1990s, plenty of research was revealing that trans fatty acids, or trans fats, may cause heart disease, and even Type 2 diabetes. So, now the health advocacy groups began to pressure the fast food restaurants into discontinuing the use of partially hydrogenated oils in their fryers.

Researchers were discovering a strong correlation between eating trans fats and getting high levels of the ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol. Trans fat was found not to reduce heart disease- it actually increases the risk- by TWICE as much!  Eating trans fat will:

  • Increase your HDL cholesterol
  • Decrease your LDL cholesterol
  • Raise your total cholesterol
  • Increase your triglycerides

This will lead to not only an increase in heart disease risk but also insulin resistance, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

Trans fats not only affect your body but they can get into your brain. And that is not good. Studies show that trans fat go into the brain cell membranes, including the myelin sheath, which works to insulate the neurons. Once there, they replace the principal fatty acid DNA. This effects the electrical activity of the neuron and impairs its ability to communicate. This can lead to a degeneration of the neurons and a decrease in mental performance. Disorders that involve a degeneration of the neurons include Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis.

Don’t Eat Any Trans Fat!

The use of trans fats throughout our food supply has grown by leaps and bounds as more and more processed foods come onto the market. And, until 2006, there were no regulations requiring that food companies put trans fat on the food labels. This is despite the fact that the government finally agreed with the research scientists in that there is NO SAFE LEVEL OF TRANS FAT and that we should eat as little as possible. Just short of banning trans fats? Not quite. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that we limit our daily trans fat to less than 1% of our calories. Trans fats are still allowed to be used but it is up to you, if you are concerned about your health and the health of your family, to avoid trans fats entirely. Unfortunately, this is not so easy…

Check The Label For Trans Fat

In 2003, the United States FDA began requiring that trans fats be listed on food labels. All companies had to comply with the law by 2006. But there is a grave concern- even though trans fats are on the label, we still really don’t know how much we are getting.  Are we limiting our trans fats to what the AHA recommends? Seriously, how many people really have any idea what 1% of their daily calories even is? Actually, the FDA did list 1.11 grams of trans fat as the daily recommended amount not to exceed.

But even more of a concern is that the food labels are deceptive as to the amount of trans fats that is in the food.  The FDA allows a food to be labeled ‘trans fat free’ but you still may be eating them. How? The current law allows fat content of less than 0.5 gms to be labeled as containing 0 grams of fat.  So, if a food product has 0.49 grams of trans fat per serving and you eat more than one serving, you have eaten about 1 gram of trans fat. Or, if you eat several servings of trans fat free food throughout the day, you can easily exceed the 1.11 grams considered ‘healthy’.

So how serious is exceeding the FDA’s level? Well, studies show that increasing your daily trans fat amount from two grams to 4.67 grams can increase your risk of heart disease by 30%.

When reading the food labels, check the ingredient list for the words ‘hydrogenated’ or ‘partially hydrogenated’. This means the food contains trans fats. If you are concerned about your health, don’t eat them, don’t buy them. I can’t stress it enough- don’t eat trans fat!

Click here for the USDA’s Fact Sheet on Trans Fat on the Nutrition Facts Label.

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