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What You Need to Know About Trans Fats - how you can avoid them and protect yourself.

Sarah Brown

There has been a lot of hype in recent years about trans fats. Most folks understand that trans fats are not good for them, but do not actually know what trans fats are, how they harm the body, and what foods contain trans fats. Allow me to provide details about trans fats, including how you can avoid them and protect yourself from the damage they can do.

What are trans fats and why are they used?

Trans fats are fats that have been altered. They start out as liquid unsaturated fats, and are then made more solid by the hydrogenation process. The hydrogenation process reduces spoilage and stabilizes flavor in foods. Using trans fats also can give foods a less greasy feel. Most trans fats are plant based vegetable oils. Very small amounts of trans fats occur in animal fat.

Hydrogenated oils first were introduced in the early 1900's and were first sold in Crisco in 1911. In the 1960's the public became aware of the dangers of eating too much saturated fat. This paved the road for trans fats, which were seen as a healthy replacement for saturated fat. It wasn't until the 1990's that researchers discovered the dangers that trans fats posed on our health. Since 2006 food companies have been required to list trans fats on their nutrition facts panels.

What do trans fats do to the body?

Trans fats have no health benefit and are not nutritionally required by our bodies. Trans fats have been found to raise levels of LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) and decrease levels of HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol). This is a major risk factor for heart disease. When there is too much LDL cholesterol in the blood it can be deposited in the arteries. HDL brings cholesterol away from the heart and to the liver, where it is processed for elimination from the body. The high levels of LDL cholesterol and low levels of HDL cholesterol can lead to a heart attack. There is some evidence that trans fats increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, cancer and obesity, but it has not yet been proven.

What foods contain trans fats?

Most often trans fats are found in margarine, shortening, deep fried foods, prepackaged snacks and baked goods. Restaurants may use oils with trans fats for deep-frying the food they serve. Cake and pancake mixes often can have several grams of trans fats per serving. Some frozen and breaded foods will contain trans fats. Sweets that are shortening based are notorious for containing a large amount of trans fats. Even some breakfast cereals contain trans fats. Any food that lists partially hydrogenated oil as an ingredient does contain trans fats, even though it may be in a very small amount.

How can trans fats be avoided?

Read labels. If it contains trans fats seek a healthier alternative. Keep in mind that a food can list 0 grams of trans fats in the nutrition facts panel, and still contain less than .5 of a gram per serving. When eating at restaurants you can ask about the oil they cook in, or at least avoid deep fried foods. When cooking at home you can use non-stick cooking spray and healthy oils such as olive oil in your cooking. Use butters and margarine in moderation. When it comes to cakes and other sweets it's best to make your own and know what ingredients you are putting in.

Avoiding trans fats can cut your risk of heart disease, as well as other health concerns, and help you make healthier food choices overall. Focusing your fat intake on unsaturated fats reduces your risk of heart disease even more. While trans fats are found in many foods. There are still plenty of healthy, trans fat free alternatives to keep us satisfied.

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