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Trans-America: The Big, Fat Truth

by Ed Bauman, PhD and Jodi Friedlander, MS, NC

What's all the fuss about Trans Fats, and why are they so bad for you?

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FATS is not a "four-letter word" of the worst kind. All fats are not evil. Despite what many people think, all fats don't need to be avoided. Fats (the fresh, unprocessed ones) are necessary for brain function, hormone production, healthy skin and cell membranes, and for absorbtion of certain vitamins. In other words, fats help to ensure good health. We cannot maintain our health without them, so fearing fat is not where it's at! Within the category of fats, the "principle of quality" applies, because of the harm that can follow years of eating trans fats. So it's important to discriminate between fats that nourish us and fats that clog our brain and slow our metabolism.

What Are Trans Fats?
Of all the fats that are damaging and can cause the most harm, trans fatty acids (TFAs) stand out from the group. But what exactly are TFAs and how do we know if the foods we're eating contain them?
Trans fats are created by an industrial process that forces hydrogen atoms into liquid vegetable oils (hydrogenation). This process saturates the oils, making them more solid and giving them, and the products that are made with them, longer shelf life, desirable texture, and flavor stability. This is a real boon for the manufacturers of processed foods.
You'll find trans fats in margarines, shortenings, crackers, cookies, chips, and other baked and fried goods in your grocery store. Find the words "partially hydrogenated," "hydrogenated", or "shortening," and you can be certain that product contains trans fats. In fact, TFAs make up 50-60% of fats in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.
TFAs have also, up until recently, been an integral factor in achieving desirable tastes in fast-food products, such as french fries and doughnuts. This, happily, is changing as restaurants are being forced to reduce the amount of trans fats in their food offerings.
Unfortunately, if the oil change these restaurants make is to canola oil, the results may not be much better. Despite the great press it gets, commercially produced canola oil contains trans fats. The deodorization process that rids the oil of the smell of rancidity caused by its high-temperature processing also creates a small percentage of trans fatty acids that do not have to be listed on its label.
A naturally-occurring trans fatty acid also exists. Known as trans vaccenic acid, it is formed by bacteria in the stomachs of ruminant animals, such as cows and sheep, and is found in their meat and milk products. Contrary to almost everything we read regarding animal fats, these fats have health-promoting properties, including the reduction of most risk factors associated with heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.

What's Wrong with Trans Fats?
By now, most people have heard that trans fats can cause or contribute to heart disease and other health conditions, but precisely what is occurring in the body remains a mystery to many. According to fats researcher, Mary Enig, Ph.D., TFAs disrupt the body's workings at the cellular level, interfering with and blocking the health-promoting functions of the essential fatty acids--essential because we cannot make them, so they must be obtained through our diets, and essential because they are necessary for health.
To follow are some of the adverse effects of TFAs that have been scientifically documented in both lab animals and humans.

Trans Fats can:
1) Increase incidence of heart disease and sudden death from cardiac causes
2) Lower the "good" HDL cholesterol and raise the "bad" LDL cholesterol
3) Raise total serum cholesterol by 20-30 mg
4) Impair arterial function
5) Increase risk for diabetes
6) Negatively affect immune response
7) Decrease levels of testosterone in male animals and increase abnormal sperm
8) Disrupt cellular function, creating decreased levels of circulating beneficial fats and escalating deleterious effect of essential fatty acid deficiency
9) Contribute to childhood asthma

On a per-calorie basis, trans fats appear to increase the risk of coronary heart disease more than any other macronutrient, conferring a substantially increased risk even at low levels of consumption (1-3% of total energy intake). Conclusion: the consumption of trans fatty acids from partially hydrogenated oils provides no apparent nutritional benefit and has considerable potential for harm.

How Much Trans Fat Can You Eat?
According to the American Heart Association, TFA intake should be kept to no more than 1% of our daily fat intake. On a typical 2000 calorie a day diet, this would amount to 20 calories, or two grams of trans fats--which is not much. Since there are naturally occurring TFAs in foods that most of us eat, this leaves little to no room for the manmade, unnatural ones.

How to Avoid Trans Fats
As much as possible, eat whole, unrefined foods. Avoid packaged foods containing partially hydrogenated or
hydrogenated oils, or shortening. Commercially prepared baked goods (cakes, pies, pastries, doughnuts), snack foods, processed foods, and fast foods should all be considered guilty until proven innocent!

Sources of Good Fats from Whole Foods Include:
* Avocados
* Olives
* Raw nuts and seeds
* Raw, whole milk dairy products
* Coconut
* Organic eggs
* Organic, pastured beef, lamb and poultry
* Wild-caught fish

Avoid using margarine, shortening, and canola oil. Instead, choose high quality fats and oils for cooking and eating. For example, use extra virgin olive oil on salads, to top cooked foods, for baking savory dishes, and for sauteing at medium heat. Try ghee (clarified butter) and/or virgin organic coconut oil for higher heat sauteing and for melting into hot grains. Fresh, organic (or raw) butter is good, too, but better for spreading than for high heat cooking. Sesame oil can hold up to medium heat and adds flavor too.
Some cold-pressed vegetable oils, such as walnut and grapeseed, can be good but need to be purchased in small quantities to avoid going rancid.
When dining out, evade trans fats by avoiding deep-fried foods, salad dressings, and desserts. Your server or the restaurant manager may be able to inform you about the types of fats used in their fried and baked foods and in their salad dressings. (Be wary of health claims made for products on websites, which are often sponsored by the makers of foods containing questionable fats.)

The Final Word on Fats
Should you fear fats? No, in general you should not. Fats from whole foods (or minimally processed from whole foods), are beneficial and necessary for good health. They're also delicious and contribute greatly to a feeling of satisfaction when eating. Just remember to stay on the unprocessed, whole foods track, and your health will be far less likely to be derailed by the damaged fats found in almost all processed foods.

Edward Bauman, M.Ed., Ph.D. NC, Board Registered, is the director of Bauman College. Jodi Friedlander, MS, NC, Board Registered is a Bauman College distance learning mentor. For information on Bauman College educational and clinical programs visit www.baumancollege.org.

Related Info:
Dr. David Kessler on taking control of our food choices
Dean Ornish, M.D. on low-fat diets and nutrition
Jack LaLanne on nutrition and aging well
Andrew Weil, M.D. on diet and nutrition
Hidden Signs of Heart Attack in Women
Reversing Type 2 Diabetes & Insulin Resistance
The Health Risks of Visceral Obesity
Barry Sears on The Zone Diet
The Truth about Cholesterol

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