Trans Fats and Your Heart: What You Need to Know

Dr. Larry Weinrauch Health Guide
  • We have all seen information in the newspapers that suggests that we should avoid trans fatty acids, but why? What does this mean? My thanks to Dr. D. Mozafferian for an explanation that permits me to understand the importance of this problem and explain it here.

    Partial hydrogenation (another name for trans fat) is a production method to make oils more solid at room temperature, to have oils last longer without spoiling and to give them a certain taste. It didn’t exist 100 years ago. But for the last 50 years it has been a common way to make nonperishable shortenings and cooking fats. Over the past 10 years, however, consistent results of randomized clinical trials have demonstrated that trans fats (which don’t actually exist is animals or plants) may be increasing our body weight, and certainly decreases the good cholesterol in our blood while increasing the bad cholesterol resulting in an increased risk of cardiovascular death.

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    We now know that diets high in trans fats can increase inflammatory proteins (also called cytokines) such as interleukin-6, C reactive protein and e-selectin. While these cellular chemicals may be involved in the building of atherosclerotic plaque, and therefore be responsible, in part, for heart attacks and stroke, they may also be involved in obesity, metabolic syndrome and adult onset or type 2 diabetes. It is also possible that they may have a role in other inflammatory diseases such as connective tissue disease, some arthritis and even chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia.

    Where do we find the most trans fats? Pastry and bakery goods (muffins, cookies, donuts and cinnamon buns) as well as fried foods. Pop Tarts and hard margarines are the worst offenders. So what should we use when we need shortening, have to fry something in oil or use margarine? The answer is relatively simple: we should prefer the polyunsaturated oils that the heart associations have been promoting over the past few years and avoid saturated fats. The best oils appear to be canola, soy, safflower and olive. But even some like palm oil fare well when compared to trans fat content. For a full discussion of the nutritional recommendations with regard to fats and diet, I would suggest the following article: The Skinny on Dietary Fats.

    By the end of the year, many of the major purveyors of food will have switched to alternative oils, and interestingly enough, you probably will not be able to tell the difference. It is similar to what happened when we found out that lead paint was a bad idea. The substitutes were just as good, and you couldn’t tell which was which unless you tested them.

    Denmark banned trans fat from food 4 years ago, and this act caused legal problems within the European Economic Community. We will see if this reduces the incidence of obesity, the likelihood of diabetes or heart disease deaths in Danes over time. New York City did it last year and many other places are planning to do the same.

    For those of us who have to grab food on the run (and in this society that is most of us when you really think about it), we should set our goals on recognizing where trans fats occur, and try to limit the amount in our diet. They can’t be totally eliminated. We can eat healthy even if we eat out of the house a lot. Think about it, how many times did you eat “out” last week? Yes, that does the count the donut, bagel, English muffin and fries… Any of those can be eliminated and replaced by a yogurt, piece of fruit or a vegetable to provide a healthier diet. During the summer months when fruit is plentiful and fresh fruit salad or sherbert (yum) can be quite satisfying.

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    Having trouble figuring out healthy options when you're out to eat? Check out this article: How to Eat Out Healthy: On Vacation and at Home

Published On: June 18, 2008