Tag Archives: trans fat

When it comes to trans fats, zero is too much!

Nutrition recommendations are often confusing and contradictory. To make things worse, the nutrition information provided on food packages can be difficult to decipher or downright misleading. In my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week I share information about trans fats and how zero doesn’t always mean none.

trans-fat-label


Remember when fat was bad and carbohydrates were good? The idea was that eating fat led to weight gain, a problem that could be solved by eating less fat. Then carbohydrates, including bread and pasta, were blamed for obesity and other health problems which led to the low-carb diet craze.

The truth is that all fats and all carbohydrates aren’t necessarily good or bad. Fats come in different forms, some of which have positive health effects and others that are linked to poor health and disease. Similarly, carbohydrates also come in different forms, some you should eat more of and some you should limit. This is why you hear people talk about good carbs and bad carbs or good fats and bad fats. In reality, no nutrients are really “bad” as long as you consume them in reasonable amounts balanced by exercise and other activity.

Nutrition recommendations for good health call for a moderate fat intake (20–35% total calories) with an emphasis on monounsaturated and omega-3 fats, while limiting saturated and trans fats. Olive oil, canola oil, and avocados are good sources of monounsaturated fats. Fish, including salmon and tuna, are high in omega-3 fatty acids. Saturated fats are found primarily in animal products, especially red meat and butter, as well as tropical oils like palm and coconut oil.

Most trans fats come from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, which are polyunsaturated fats that have been modified for use in frying and in baking (margarine is a partially hydrogenated vegetable oil). While there is much debate about the health effects of the different types of fats, almost everyone agrees that trans fats should be avoided.

The Nutrition Facts panel on food packages also contains information that is supposed to help you make choices that are lower in total fat, saturated fat, and trans fat. Unfortunately, this is not as straightforward as it seems. By law, manufacturers can list trans fat at 0 grams as long as it contains less than 0.5 grams. This means that a food can contain up to 0.49 grams of trans fat per serving even though it is listed as 0 grams!

This may not seem like much, but consider that the American Heart Association recommends limiting trans fat intake to 2 grams per day, at most. You could easily exceed this limit with just a few servings of “trans-fat free” foods. When it comes to trans fats, zero can be too much. It’s no wonder so many people struggle to make healthy food choices!

How can you tell if zero isn’t really zero? One way is to look for “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” in the ingredient list, which indicates that trans fats are present.

Nutrition information is confusing, to say the least. Even if you know to look at the Nutrition Facts panel on food packages, the information there is not always easy to understand. In some cases, what you see on the label does not reflect what you are really eating.

One step toward making healthy choices is to eat “real,” unprocessed food as much as possible. Fats that occur naturally in food are less of a concern than modified fats that are added in food processing. So, don’t worry so much about fat in meat and dairy and use natural oils, like olive oil. You will likely find that these “real” foods are not just better for you, but better tasting, too!


Nutrition, exercise, and health information can be confusing. 
But it doesn't have to be that way.
What can I help you with?
 drbrianparr@gmail.com | http://twitter.com/drbrianparr

Know your nutrients: Fats

This month I am writing about the major nutrients in our diets. Last week I provided information about carbohydrates, the major energy source in our diets. This week the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard  is fats, including saturated fats, unsaturated (monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and trans) fats, omega-3 fats, and cholesterol.

High_Fat_Foods


Fats tend to get a bad reputation since they are higher in calories than carbohydrates and protein and have traditionally been associated with obesity and heart disease when eaten in excess. In reality, some dietary fats are detrimental to your health, while others have health benefits. These consequences are partly linked to the effect of the fats on the LDL (“bad”) and HDL (“good”) cholesterol in your blood and partly to other factors, including blood clotting and inflammation.

Traditionally, cholesterol and saturated fats have been linked to heart disease because they raise levels of LDL cholesterol. Cholesterol is only found in animals, whereas saturated fats are in animals and tropical oils such as palm and coconut oil. This is why you may have heard that you should avoid foods that contain these fats, including red meat and eggs.

It turns out that the link between saturated fat, cholesterol, and heart disease isn’t what we long believed, so these dietary recommendations are being revisited. There has been much discussion in the media and scientific literature about the basis for our current recommendations leading to spirited debate among nutritionists and other health professionals.

If you are interested in learning more about the history and science behind the cholesterol-saturated fat-heart disease relationship, the recent book The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz,  an interview with the author on The People’s Pharmacy public radio radio show, and  the article Ending the War on Fat in Time magazine are good, user-friendly places to start. Keep in mind that there are many scientists who disagree and research to support the health benefits of reducing saturated fat—and fat in general—in the diet. But there is growing support for the notion that maybe fat isn’t as bad as we initially believed.

Unsaturated fats are found in plant oils. Polyunsaturated fats tend to lower both LDL and HDL cholesterol. Monounsaturated fats are associated with lower LDL but they do not lower HDL cholesterol–this is better. Oils high in polyunsaturated fats include corn and soybean oil while olive and canola oils are rich in monounsaturated fats.

Trans fats are found mostly in modified oils which are hydrogenated to make them more solid and have a longer shelf life. For example, when corn oil (unsaturated fat) is partially hydrogenated it becomes more trans and is more solid—margarine. Trans fats are used in baked and fried foods and can be identified on food labels (most of the time) or by the words “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredient list. Trans fats have the effect of raising LDL while lowering HDL cholesterol, a bad combination!

There are three essential omega-3 fats in the diet: ALA, EPA, and DHA. Two of these, EPA and DHA, are primarily found in fish and are associated with reduced risk of heart attack due to their beneficial effects reducing inflammation and blood clotting. Other sources of omega-3 fats include flax seeds, which are high in ALA. The evidence is strongest for beneficial health effects of EPA and DHA, so eating fish or taking fish oil supplements is a common recommendation.

Dietary fat should account for 20–35% of your total calories. The typical American diet is a bit too high in total fat, mostly from unhealthy sources. Your goal should be to make food choices that will shift your intake of fat away from unhealthy sources (trans fats) to more healthy sources (monounsaturated and omega-3 fats). Keep in mind that “fat-free” foods aren’t necessarily healthy options.

Fortunately, trans fats are less common now than they were even a few years ago, but staying away from fried foods and checking the labels on prepackaged snacks will help you avoid trans fats. Switching to olive or canola oil to increase your consumption of monounsaturated fats and eating fish 2–3 times per week can help you get enough omega-3 fats.

Just as with carbohydrates, you should get your dietary fats from real food (like butter), not processed foods (margarine). If you do that, you won’t need to worry so much about the types of fats you eat. And don’t forget that all fat contains calories, so don’t overeat even the healthier fats, especially if you are trying to control your weight!


Nutrition, exercise, and health information can be confusing. 
But it doesn't have to be that way.
What can I help you with?
 drbrianparr@gmail.com | http://twitter.com/drbrianparr