Trans-Fats Are Sneaky: How to Keep Them Out of Your Diet

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There are good fats and bad fats, and then there are the worst dietary fats of all – trans-fats. Unfortunately, many people are still getting too much of this fat that’s linked with a higher risk of heart disease and stroke. What makes trans-fat such a villain when it comes to your health and how can you avoid it?

Why Are Trans-Fats So Unhealthy?

Trans-fats are fats that have been chemically-altered and “forced” to assume a structure that’s not found in nature. As with other situations where man (or woman) tries to change what exists in nature, it has health consequences. That’s certainly the case with trans-fats. Trans-fat has the ability to raise LDL-cholesterol (the bad cholesterol) and lower HDL-cholesterol (the good form) even more than saturated fat, the kind doctors have been telling you to limit for years. That’s not a good thing when it comes to heart health.

Trans-fats are so strongly linked with heart disease that they’re banned in restaurant food in the states of New York and California. Unfortunately, too many restaurants in other areas still have them on the menu, and they aren’t very transparent about it. That means you have to do some detective work to make sure you’re not clogging your arteries every time you eat out.

How Can You Avoid Trans-Fat in Your Diet?

It’s trickier to avoid trans-fats than you think. Many manufacturers of processed foods are removing trans-fat from their products, but some aren’t going far enough. When you read a label on a packaged product and see it contains “zero” grams of trans-fat you may feel reassured – but the FDA allows companies to list zero grams if a product contains less than 0.5 grams per serving. Since we know that even small amounts of trans-fat are unhealthy, it’s best to avoid products that contain these oils. To find out whether there’s any trans-fat in a product, read the ingredient list. If it lists “partially hydrogenated oil” or “fractionated oil” as an ingredient, it contains some trans-fat.

It’s even more difficult when you eat out. Some chain restaurants have switched to trans-fat free cooking oil for frying foods, but continue to use margarine that contains trans-fat on vegetables, in sauces and salad dressings and on entrees. You have to specifically ask whether they use margarine or butter. Despite the fact that it’s higher in saturated fat, butter is the better choice. Some restaurants use a trans-fat free margarine, which is okay, but always clarify that it contains no trans-fat. Some chain restaurants post their nutritional information online, so you can see whether their offerings contain trans-fat – but be careful. Some restaurants only list saturated fat and unsaturated fats under the nutritional information, so always ask the manager or someone knowledgeable if there’s any uncertainty.

Why are restaurants and food manufacturers so hot on trans-fat? They make baked goods taste better and they prolong the shelf-life of foods. That saves money. Unfortunately, it comes at the expense of your health.

Eat More Unprocessed Foods

One of the best ways to avoid trans-fat in your diet is to limit the number of processed and packaged foods in your diet and choose more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. These are naturally trans-fat free. Meat and dairy products naturally contain small amounts of trans-fat, but these natural forms don’t seem to have the same health drawbacks that “artificial” trans-fats have.

Take-Home Tips:

Read the ingredient list on packaged foods to make sure they don’t contain partially hydrogenated oils or fractionated oils. Don’t assume that zero grams of trans-fat really means zero.

Avoid using margarine unless you know it’s trans-fat free.

Read the nutritional information online before eating in a restaurant to see whether they’re trans-fat free. Remember that some use trans-fat free cooking oil but still use margarine that contains trans-fat. Ask the manager if you’re not sure what they’re putting on their food.

Replace processed and packaged foods with whole foods as much as possible. Packaged foods are where most of the trans-fats are hiding.

The Bottom Line?

There’s nothing “healthy” about trans-fat. It’s something you should avoid at all costs, even in small amounts. The American diet contains enough saturated fat already, so don’t add this artery-clogging fat to your breakfast, lunch or dinner plate.

Kristie Leong M.D.

Dr. Kristie Leong and Dr. Apollo Leong are physicians helping you to lead a healthy lifestyle by sharing nutrition and fitness tips and keeping you abreast of the latest health news.