Trans fats have been making headlines since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed banning them from the nation’s food supply due to the health risks they pose to the public; trans fats have been shown to increase risk of heart disease, the nation’s leading killer of men and women. The FDA estimates that removing trans fats from the nation’s food supply could prevent up to 7,000 deaths each year.
While public health advocates have applauded the FDA’s efforts, not everyone understands what trans fats are, in what foods they’re found, or why they’re bad for your health. Today, we answer common questions about trans fats, with the help of Kelly Pritchett, PhD, RD, CSSD, Media Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
What are trans fats?
“Trans fats have been used as ingredients in foods since the early 1900s,” says Pritchett. “They help prevent spoilage and rancidity in foods, which increases the shelf life of products.”
Trans fats, also known as trans fatty acids, are a type of unsaturated fat. Trans fats are created in through a process called hydrogenation that adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid. The resulting product of hydrogenation is partially hydrogenated oil, from which comes most of the trans fats Americans consume.
How are trans fats bad for your health?
“The FDA is considering eliminating most trans fats from the nation’s food supply because of the health implications associated with trans fats,” says Pritchett. “Numerous studies have linked increased consumption of trans fats with increased risk of heart disease. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that trans fats intake should be as low as possible.”
Trans fats were once considered healthier than the animal fats they were used to replace; however, an increasing number of studies from the past few decades have linked trans fats to an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.
Trans fats raise low-density lipoprotein (LDL), commonly known as “bad” cholesterol and lower high-density lipoprotein (HDL), commonly known as “good” cholesterol. If a person’s LDL cholesterol levels are high over time, they may develop atherosclerosis, a condition in which plaque builds up on arteries’ walls. (Arteries are tube-like vessels that carry blood around your body.) If the plaque tears or breaks, a blood clot can form, blocking an artery and interfering with how blood travels around the body. If blood flow is blocked to your heart, you have a heart attack, and if blood flow is blocked to the brain, you have a stroke.
Are there any health benefits of trans fats?
“No, there are no health benefits,” says Pritchett.
In what foods are trans fats found?
Trans fats are currently found in many processed foods and in small amounts in some dairy products and meat. “They’re found in a lot of packaged foods,” says Pritchett, “including soups, frozen foods, baked goods, toppings (such as icing), dips, breakfast foods, crackers and cookies.” Many restaurants also use trans fats in their food.
How can people avoid trans fats? What should they look for when grocery shopping?
Pritchett advises that people learn how to read nutrition labels. “Don’t just read the nutrition facts panel on packaged food,” she says. “Make sure to read the ingredients list. A product that claims to have zero grams of trans fats on the nutritional facts panel can actually contain trans fats as long as it has less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. If the ingredient list contains partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated oils, that’s your best indicator that the product contains trans fats.”
What other steps can I take to improve my heart health?
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics offers these heart healthy tips:
- Engage in moderate physical activity most days of the week.
- Consume omega-3 rich fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, lake trout)
- Reduce consumption of saturated fat, cholesterol, added sugars and refined grains.
- Reduce salt intake.
“The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics supports the FDA’s efforts to limit trans fats,” says Pritchett. “In the meantime, I suggest keeping trans fats intake to a minimum, while consuming more fruits, vegetables, lean meats (like chicken or fish), whole grains and low-fat or fat-free dairy products.”
Do you think the FDA should ban trans fats from the nation’s food supply? Let us know in the comments below! To learn more about high cholesterol, check out iTriage’s infographic: High Cholesterol: What You Need to Know.
Kelly Pritchett, PhD, RD, CSSD, is a Media Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She is an Assistant Professor in Sports Nutrition at the University of Georgia. You can follow her on Twitter @KPritchettRD.
This article was produced by iTriage in partnership with Roper St. Francis Healthcare. On the web or on your smartphone, iTriage helps you find the care you need, when you need it. Using iTriage, you can learn about possible causes of your symptoms, research medications, locate and compare nearby care options, book appointments and store your personal health record. Check out iTriage by downloading the free app or visiting www.iTriageHealth.com.