Trans fats could be stealing years from your life, just to reduce costs for manufacturers and extend shelf life.
Today, we’re telling you what these fats are, why they’re so dangerous, and how you can reclaim your health by avoiding the most dangerous fatty foods on the market.
Let’s start by identifying the culprit of all this dietary damage.
What are trans fats?
Trans fats are the worst kind of saturated fats, made from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, and sold in products like margarine and non-butter spreads.
Trans fats were made during tough economic times, when butter was expensive, and people needed an alternative. It was used in the Napoleonic army as a cheap butter substitute, and it continued this reputation in the 20th century. The marketing for margarine painted it as affordable and healthy. In reality, it was cheap and convenient for food manufacturers.
Trans fats are called ‘trans’ because of the arrangement of the carbon atoms in their chemical structure. In chemistry, the term ‘trans’ means ‘opposite,’ and it refers to the relative positions of two groups or molecules on either side of a double bond.
The trans configuration of the molecule makes trans fats more stable and resistant to spoilage, which is why they were initially used in processed foods. However, over the past 30 years, we’ve found that these partially hydrogenated fats are a major health risk.
Which foods contain trans fats?
You’ll find trans fats in all kinds of solid vegetable spreads, but also in the preparation of some processed foods and fast food. That’s right – they’re one of the major reasons you need to avoid your favourite fast food joint.
If trans fats make up over 1% of your daily energy intake, your risk for health problems is seriously increased, with each percentage point above this number increasing your mortality risk further. In studies across whole populations, these fats are linked with all causes of death increasing.
But what are the real risks of trans fats to you? Why are they so bad?
How dangerous are trans fats?
Trans fats are very dangerous – they kill hundreds of thousands of people per year globally – 500,000 of which are from coronary heart disease alone. Mandatory ingredient labeling has helped, but they are still in stores and restaurants.
The real problem is that trans fats make us more likely to die of major health problems – like obesity and diabetes – and worsen existing health problems. So, adding them to your diet increases all-cause mortality risk, but replacing them significantly improves diet.
Trans fats can lower levels of HDL or ‘good’ cholesterol in the blood and increase levels of LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol by raising the total cholesterol level and also increasing the proportion of small, dense LDL particles.
Small, dense LDL particles are considered to be more harmful to cardiovascular health than larger, buoyant LDL particles.
Excessive trans fats in the diet are a significant risk factor for cardiovascular events, heart disease and stroke.
Trans fats can increase levels of triglycerides, which are a type of fat found in the blood that can contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease. The research shows that only a 2% increase in energy intake from trans-fat can lead to a 23% increase in cardiovascular problems risk.
When trans fats are consumed, they are absorbed into the body and transported to various tissues, including the liver. Once in the liver, they can interfere with the body’s ability to metabolise and break down other types of fats, including essential fatty acids.
Trans fats have been shown to impair insulin sensitivity, which can lead to insulin resistance, a condition in which the body’s cells do not respond effectively to insulin. Insulin resistance is a hallmark of type 2 diabetes and obesity.
Trans fats have also been shown to cause inflammation in the body, which can lead to a variety of health problems. Chronic inflammation has been linked to conditions such as arthritis, asthma, and even certain types of cancer.
Some of the ways that trans fats may increase the risk of cancer include inflammation and cell damage, including DNA damage, which can lead to mutations and the development of cancer. They can also affect hormone levels in the body, which can contribute to the development and growth of certain types of cancer.
Additionally, trans fats may promote the growth of blood vessels that feed tumors, a process known as angiogenesis, which can lead to the development and spread of cancer.
Five ways to reduce trans fat risks
You can avoid trans fats by making simple choices about what you eat, and where you eat, and eliminating foods that you already know are unhealthy from your diet. Here are our top tips for avoiding these dangerous fats, keeping your heart healthy, and adding years to your life!
1Cut out trans fat spreads
The first and most impactful thing you can do for yourself is to replace high-trans fat margarine with something better. Healthier forms of margarine exist and could be an easy swap. As with so many other areas of good diet, step one is just awareness.
We know the dangers of these spreads, and it’s easy to replace or eliminate them.
All the most common and dangerous sources of trans fats are from eating out, buying frozen, and ordering in. Spending more time cooking gives you more control over the ingredients you’re eating and can help you avoid unwanted, unhealthy fats.
Many of these dangerous foods use partially hydrogenated fats for stability and convenience. This isn’t a problem when you’re cooking at home. Baked goods using butter or coconut oil may go off faster, but they’re not stored.
Cooking takes more time but it reduces the risk and dependence. Control your food intake, and you’ll take back control of your health.
3Be proactive about healthy fats
The other fats in your diet are just as important as trans fat reduction and replacement. Increasing your intake of heart-healthy fats is a great way to support health.
Actively seek out healthy fat for the rest of your diet. Increasing your intake of healthy fats combats the risks trans fats pose. Focus on unsaturated fats (like olive oil and avocado oil), high-quality saturates like coconut oil, and alternative vegetable oils (like rapeseed oil).
When you replace something bad with something good, you get double benefits. Be pro-active.
4Avoid processed meats
Meat and dairy include low levels of trans fats, but these can become excessive when consuming either:
Excessive quantities of meat and dairy
These are risky in the same way as other sources and need to be monitored. Adjusting your diet towards more whole foods and plant sources is a great way to avoid these risks. When in doubt, go for unprocessed foods.
5Diet and exercise
Trans fats are most dangerous when added to a sedentary lifestyle or a low quality diet.
Stay active, improve the quality of your diet, improve sleep hygiene, and stay hydrated. These simple habits help you protect yourself against all kinds of risks.
Fat sources are just one factor influencing your health. You can improve your health by replacing them, but it’s important to look at the big picture and work on your whole lifestyle.
Foods to avoid
Commercial baked goods: packed with trans fats for stability on the shelf – homemade goods and freshly made bakes are less risky.
Frozen pizza: made with ‘shortening’ for freezer stability, as well as low-quality nutrients overall.
Pre-prepared dough and rolls: prepared with shortening for stability, as well as AGEs (also dangerous).
Fried foods: almost all fast food is rich in trans fats, so cut down on them or eliminate completely.
Margarine: it’s easy to replace margarine, and you should do so immediately, or use brands with deliberately healthy fats. Many soft margarines are just vegetable oil, despite the same name.
‘Dairy-free’ products: many non-dairy alternatives use trans fats for texture. Inspect the content closely.
You don’t have to avoid all trans fats all the time. Sometimes, they’re unavoidable, while sometimes it’s just a small price to pay for a favourite food. The key is moderation, reducing intake, and making better choices whenever you can.
Let’s sum up
Trans fats are unquestionably one of the most dangerous and life-threatening substances in our food culture today. They contribute to our current health problems, making them worse and more life threatening. And the only reason they exist is to simply increase the shelf life and lower the costs of food products.
Reducing or eliminating these fats from your diet is an easy way to improve your health. It will unclog your arteries, give your heart an easier time, and reduce your risk of many common causes of death.
All this is possible with a few simple steps – changing your spreads, cooking oils, and reducing fast food intake.
Focus on better alternatives – and you’ll find yourself feeling and living better, for longer, and at very little cost.
Not enough? Here is more!
If you want to know more about trans fats and their impact on health, you can read the world health organisation (WHO) REPLACE trans fat report. This is the original report on the role of these fats in health problems and mortality, and how we can all work on reducing our intake.
If you’re done with reading, here’s the official WHO video:
Alternatively, check in with Judith Shaw’s book simply called ‘trans fats’, which goes into more depth. It’s a little heavy-handed, but offers perspective on how things got this way!
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