Most people are eating a poison every day without giving it a second thought. This substance can increase belly fat and consuming even small amounts (2% of total energy intake) is consistently linked to coronary heart disease. The research also says that this stuff can increase visceral fat, contribute to insulin resistance, increase risk of type 2 diabetes, increase bad cholesterol, decrease good cholesterol, trigger systemic inflammation and adversely affect almost every cell in your body.
What substance could be so harmful that it causes all of these health problems and yet is so prevalent in our food supply that most people are eating dangerous amounts every single day? This industrially manufactured ingredient is called Trans fatty acids (TFA’s).
TFA’s are not found in nature, with the exception of some ruminant-derived TFA’s in certain dairy products (usually contributing less than 0.5% of total caloric intake). TFA’s come mostly from the industrial hydrogenation of vegetable oils, which alters the natural cis configuration of the oils to the trans configuration. If you see “partially hydrogenated” oil in the ingredients list of any food product, then it contains TFA’s.
TFA’s have been studied for decades, but were largely ignored until the past several years. Research papers linking trans fats to heart disease date back to the 1970’s. In 1994, the Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to put trans fats on food labels (didn’t happen until 2006). Since 2006, TFA’s have thankfully received a decent amount of publicity when they were in the news regarding new food labeling laws and the banning of their use in restaurants in some states.
New studies have been published in the past year confirming the dangers of TFA’s. Four recent studies indicated 24, 20, 27 and 32% higher risk of myocardial infarction (MI) or CHD death for every 2% energy of TFA consumption isocalorically replacing carbohydrate, SFA, cis monounsaturated fatty acids and cis polyunsaturated fatty acids, respectively.
TFA intake in the United States still averages 2-3% of total energy intake, 4% in some developing countries where fast food is being introduced and as high as 8-10% in certain subgroups (who eat large amounts of baked goods, fried foods, pastries, doughnuts, etc). The government recommended maximum is 1% of total energy intake (2 grams!). Some experts say there is NO safe level of TFA intake.
Legislation has been enacted in some states banning the use of TFAs in restaurants. It was big news New York. As of 2008, 11 cities and counties have adopted regulations to restrict TFA use in restaurants. However, industrial TFA use is still widespread and lots of people are still scarfing them down every day.
If Trans fats are so dangerous, why is their use so widespread? Dietary fat expert Udo Erasmus put it this way: “TFA’s are a food manufacturer’s dream: an unspoilable substance that lasts forever.” TFA’s are cheap and for countless food products, they can prolong shelf life, allow easy transport, provide solidity at room temperature (to make spreads), and increase suitability for commercial frying.
Although most people have heard of TFA’s, the bad news is that this increased awareness has not been enough to translate into behavior change.
A study recently published in the Journal of The American Dietetic Association (ADA) found that in 2007, 73% of Americans knew that TFA’s increased risk of heart disease, compared to 63% in 2006. However, the bad news is that 79% of Americans could not name 3 foods that contain trans fats. 46% of Americans could not name any sources of trans fats on their own.
“Knowledge about food sources of fats remains low” says Robert Eckel, professor of Medicine at the University of Colorado.
Public health messages have been raising awareness, but they haven’t been enough. “TFA’s are bad for you.” Ok, so now what? What you really need are some simple behavior guidelines and a list of foods to eat very infrequently if you eat them at all.
Here are some good places for you to start.
4 Ways to Avoid Trans Fatty Acids
1. Eat mostly foods that do not have a label. At the risk of stating the obvious, if you don’t eat anything that comes in a box or package with a label, then you won’t ever consume manmade TFA’s. If your diet consists primarily of fruits, fibrous vegetables, root vegetables, beans, legumes, brown rice, unprocessed whole grains, nuts, seeds, eggs, fish and lean meats, you’re home free.
2. Watch for label loopholes. WARNING: Food companies are lying to you on their product labels to make you think their foods are TFA-free. The front of their package may say “ZERO grams of trans fats,” and yet there is hydrogenated oil listed in the ingredients. How could that be? There is a label loophole where the government allows companies to claim zero trans fats if there is less than a half a gram per serving. So the food companies sneakily manipulate their serving sizes until the servings are so small that the TFA content falls below the per serving limit.
3. Read ingredients lists. The primary source of TFA’s is partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. In particular, soybean, sunflower, cottonseed and palm oils are frequently hydrogenated. Your first step then, is to read food labels on any packaged products and look at the ingredients list. If it contains partially hydrogenated oils, it contains TFA’s.
4. Avoid foods that contain TFA’s most of the time. TFA’s are commonly found in baked goods (bakery), fried foods and packaged convenience foods, especially:
packaged frozen foods (breaded chicken, breaded fish, etc)
french fries (fried potatoes)
margarines and spreads
some salad dressings
some artificial cheeses
* major food sources for American adults
In 2002 when I published the first edition of my ebook, Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle, I warned my readers of the dangers of trans fatty acids. I was not the only one either. Years ahead of the 2006 law requiring trans fats to be listed on food labels and the 2007-2008 restaurant TFA bans, numerous health professionals were already warning people to stay away from TFA’s.
Not enough people heeded the warnings, while meanwhile, politics and commercial interests delayed legislation. No doubt, skyrocketing rates of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease can be largely linked to the continued use of these artificial fake food additives. In the US alone, 1,700,000 new cases of diabetes, 233,600 diabetes-related deaths, 600,000 myocardial infarctions and 451,300 coronary heart disease-related deaths are reported every year.
A campaign for better education and lifestyle change is worth supporting. As researchers from Harvard said, “A comprehensive strategy to eliminate the use of industrial TFA in both developed and developing countries, including education, food labeling, and policy and legislative initiatives, would likely prevent tens of thousands of CHD events worldwide each year.”
For a healthy and balanced lifestyle, and for better long-term compliance, I’m rarely in favor of tagging any foods as totally “forbidden” or to use words as strong as “poison” in describing foods. But if there are any exceptions, trans fats are one of them.
If you are unable or unwilling to eliminate TFA’s from your diet completely, then you would be wise for the sake of your health and your family’s health, to keep foods containing TFA’s to a bare minimum and avoid eating any TFA-laden foods on a daily basis.
Last, but not least, be on guard, because history tells us that when one harmful food additive is banned, it is often replaced with another, which is sometimes even worse. That’s why item #1 on my list of four ways to avoid trans fatty acids is the best way to avoid anything that is harmful to your health.
Train hard and expect success,
Fat Loss Coach
About the Author:
Americans’ Awareness, Knowledge, and Behaviors Regarding Fats, Eckel RH et al, Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Feb 2009 (2):288-296
Metabolic implications of dietary trans-fatty acids, Dorfman SE et al, Obesity, Feb 2009, 1-8. Cardiovascular and metabolism disease area, Novartis institutes for biomedical research, INc. Cambridge, Mass.
Mortality from arteriosclerotic disease and consumption of hydrogenated oils and fats, Thomas LH, Br J Prev Soc Med, Jun 1975 29(2): 82-90
Health effects of trans-fatty acids: experimental and observational evidence. Mozzafarian D, Eur J Clin Nutr, May 2009: 63 suppl 2S5-21, Harvard Medical School
Fats that Heal, Fats that Kill, Udo Erasmus, Alive Books, 1994
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