In recent years, the downside of trans fats has become increasingly well known: they are linked to higher LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and to lower levels of heart-protective HDL cholesterol, both of which increase the risk of heart disease. People may not know that other research has shown that women with high levels of trans fats in the blood are more likely to suffer a heart attack.
Through a laboratory process called hydrogenation, a liquid fat can be made solid, and trans fats are born. The resultant fat is more stable, making it useful for extending the shelf life of processed foods and capable of withstanding high temperatures, like those used in frying. Packaged foods—crackers, cookies, cakes, and pastries—account for the large majority of dietary trans fats, which also occur naturally in lesser amounts in some animal products such as dairy, beef, and lamb.
While trans fats were a temporary boon to the food industry, growing awareness of their negative impact on health have made it clear that artificially produced trans fats have no place in the human diet. They have been linked to heart disease, infertility, and colon cancer.
In the study that found a connection between trans fats and heart attacks, researchers looked at levels of trans fats in red blood cells of 32,826 women as part of the Nurses’ Health Study to see if they were correlated to heart disease. The results were published in the American Heart Association journal, Circulation.
To no one’s surprise, higher levels of trans fats in red blood cells were associated with higher LDL cholesterol levels and higher LDL-to-HDL ratios, another risk factor for heart disease. Women with the highest trans fats levels were more than three times as likely to suffer a heart attack or to die of heart disease as were women with the lowest levels.
I spy trans fats
Denmark was the first country to limit the amount of trans fats allowable in food, effectively banning their use. Since then, Canada and Switzerland have followed suit. All foods sold in the US must bear labels disclosing the amount of trans fat in the product, and New York City restaurants have banned the use of trans fats altogether.
Get label savvy
• There is no % daily value for trans fats, so be sure to look for the number of grams on ingredient labels (listed under saturated fat on the label).
• Avoid foods containing partially hydrogenated oil, even if the label states “zero grams trans fat.” The FDA allows for products containing less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving to claim zero trans fat.
• Limit your intake of saturated fats to less than 20 grams per day, as these fats also increase heart disease risk.
Kimberly Beauchamp, ND
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