I have always likened the metabolic process to a beautifully choreographed dance that gives us energy and keeps us fit as a result of eating a balanced nutritional diet. When these chemical reactions are out of rhythm due to poor dietary choices, the metabolic process begins to falter, and can lead to heart disease, diabetes, obesity and many other problems that can compromise our health.
Also known as "partially hydrogenated oils," trans fats are created by an industrial process known as "hydrogenation" whereby hydrogen is added to a liquid vegetable oil to make it solid, giving it a more desirable taste and texture while also creating a longer shelf and fry life.
They're usually the foods we love to eat most. Trans fats are found in deep-fried foods like French fries and doughnuts, and are also found in baked goods, such as cookies, crackers, pie crusts, biscuits, pizza dough, pastries, packaged snack foods, stick margarine, shortening and microwave popcorn. But they're also the foods that do the most damage, especially to the heart and blood vessels.
Food labels can be deceiving. Some products contain so small an amount of trans fat—less than half a gram—manufacturers can put 0 grams on the product. An easy way to double-check that 0-gram claim is to check the ingredients. If you see "shortening," "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil" or "hydrogenated vegetable oil," the food contains some trans fat.
Trans fats are among the "bad fats" that increase our low-density lipoproteins (or "bad") cholesterol, and decrease our high-density lipoproteins (or "good") cholesterol levels. A high LDL cholesterol level in combination with a low HDL cholesterol level increase the risk of heart disease. A 2% increase in daily energy intake from trans fat is associated with a 23% increase in cardiovascular disease risk. Due to their damaging health consequences, the American Heart Association recommends limiting the consumption of trans fats to no more than 1% of your total daily calories.
So how do we go about making these changes? Reading the nutrition labels and ingredients list is the best place to start, but it can be misleading. Thanks to public health efforts and legislation, trans fats are slowly becoming less popular. These tips will help you limit trans fats in and out of the home.
- Use an alternative. Try butter, coconut and palm oil, fully hydrogenated and liquid vegetable oil, and some newer fat substitutes.
- Avoiding eating mass-produced baked foods (like cookies, crackers, pastries and snack foods).
- Avoid deep-fried foods and other desserts in restaurants.
There is no denying that we all need fats in our diet. Fat is essential for the nutrient absorption of vitamins A, D, K and E in foods that we eat, and some fats actually keep the blood cholesterol level down and reduce cholesterol deposits in artery walls.
The movement against trans fats is making a splash on the national level, too. Earlier this year, First Lady Michelle Obama announced that Wal-Mart had joined her Let's Move! initiative to solve the problem of childhood obesity within a generation.
Whether it's a ballet, the Tango, or "the metabolic dance of life," choose your dance partners wisely in order to keep the rhythm of your metabolic system balanced and fit.
Beverly Clark is a registered dietician and Director of Women Infants and Children for Contra Costa Health Services.
Healthy Outlook is written by the professional staff of Contra Costa Health Services, the county health department. Send questions to series coordinator Dr. David Pepper at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more health information, go to www.cchealth.org.
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