The "Don’t Fear Fat" Series: Why You Should Run From Trans Fat

Just tuning in? This is the third and final installment of our “Don’t Fear Fat” series. Two weeks ago, we covered saturated fats and their role in health. Last week, we explored mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated fats. Read on below to learn more about trans fats.

Photo by Andrew Rivett Photo by Andrew Rivett

If you were around in the 80s and 90s during the low-fat and processed food crazes, chances are you’ve been exposed to some unnatural, not-so-healthy industrial fats. These fats that continue to linger in our diets are commonly found in margarine and other hydrogenated vegetable oils. They were touted as “safe” and allowed in many grocery store products and restaurants for a long time – and still are to some degree.

Fortunately, we have plenty of studies and research that reveal the truth about industrial trans fats. Unfortunately, that truth is a bit daunting when you read the list of related health concerns, including increased risk for heart disease and chronic inflammation. While there’s some controversy over whether or not saturated fat and other fats are good for you, the consensus around trans fats maintains that it’s not.

Before we get too far into trans fats and why you should remove them from your diet, it’s important to note that there is a kind of trans fat that occurs naturally and comes from ruminant animals like cows, goats and sheep. Do not be alarmed. We’ve been eating this type of trans fat since humans started eating meat, and research shows that it isn’t harmful.

The unnaturally occurring trans fat are the ones to avoid. These industrial fats are made when hydrogen molecules are pumped into liquid vegetable oil. This alters the chemical structure of the fat, changing it from a liquid to a solid. It might sound cool, but it’s really not. The body doesn’t recognize these fats and therefore doesn’t really know what to do with them.

Instead of putting them to productive use like the body does with other types of fats, these unnatural trans fats run amok and cause disruption and chaos at a cellular level. They even interfere with cell metabolism, a process that gives energy to every bodily function. The chemical reactions that take place during cell metabolism maintain life, so you really don’t want to mess with them.

This chaos and disruption can eventually lead to:

Hydrogenated oils are cheap, and sadly that makes them widely used and available in many processed foods. Here are just a few of the ones you should avoid:

  • Hydrogenated vegetable oils
  • Margarine
  • Frosting (commercially bought)
  • Microwave popcorn
  • Fast food, especially fried foods
  • Shortening

Fortunately, over time, our consumption and exposure to trans fats has decreased. This is in part due to increased regulation on the amount of trans fats allowed in processed foods, as well as increased regulation around labeling requirements. However, trans fats still sneak into many Americans’ daily diets with the average U.S. adult consuming around 1-2 grams per day.

Even with labeling, it’s still not entirely clear how much trans fat is actually in packaged food. In the U.S., manufacturers can still label their products as “trans fat free” as long as there is less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. But for some products, that serving could be one cookie, or a handful of popcorn… So you can see how this number can quickly add up to a much more dangerous level.

That’s yet another reason why sticking to a whole foods diet and limiting your intake of processed and packaged foods is so important. If you do decide to reach for that bag of chips or jar of frosting, be sure to take a good look at the label. Check the label for trans fats, but also look for other words that trans fat hides under. These include, but aren’t limited to “partially hydrogenated” and “high stearate.”

If you’re looking for optimal health, it’s best to nourish your body with foods that are beneficial and avoid foods that undermine your body’s processes. Naturally occurring fats from the right sources and in the right quantities can help your body perform at its best. Industrial fats, like trans fat, disrupt your body’s processes and can lead to dangerous chronic illnesses. Stick to a whole foods, seasonal diet and your body will thank you.

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