The Dangers of Trans Fats and How to Avoid Them

Fat in the diet is a confusing topic. Your body needs some fats to function properly, but they need to be the right ones, preferably unsaturated fats. Certain other fats, like the trans-fatty acids (trans fats), are actually harmful to the body and should be avoided.

Trans fats are made by adding hydrogen to oil in a process called hydrogenation. The resulting solid oil is more stable than other oils, so products made with it stay fresh longer. Food manufacturers like it. Our bodies don't.

The dangers of trans fats

Trans fats cause changes in the body that increase the risk of blood vessel and cardiovascular diseases. They:

increase low-density lipoprotein (LDL), which is the "bad cholesterol" that builds up in your arteries, causing atherosclerosis.

lower high-density lipoprotein (HDL), the "good cholesterol" that helps keep your blood vessels clear by taking extra cholesterol back to your liver.

increase triglycerides, which might also contribute to atherosclerosis.

increase total cholesterol more than any other fats.

Having a high LDL along with a low HDL increases your risk of heart disease more than either condition alone.

Trans fats also increase inflammation in your body, possibly by damaging cells in your blood vessels. This may cause more fatty blockages in those vessels.

How to avoid trans fats

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires nutrition labels to include trans fat content, so the best way to avoid it is to read the label. This is not foolproof, because manufacturers are allowed to list amounts of trans fat under 0.5 grams per serving as zero.

A little detective work can help you find the trans fats hiding in foods labeled with 0 grams trans fat. The term "partially hydrogenated" refers to the process used to make trans fats, so a product containing partially hydrogenated oil has at least some trans fat. The term "hydrogenated" alone is less clear, because it could also refer to fully or completely hydrogenated oil, which does not contain trans fats.

You are most likely to find trans fats in baked and fried foods, as well as some margarines and shortening. Many restaurants also still use trans fats in the oils they use for frying, so ask before ordering, or order foods prepared in other ways.

The American Heart Association recommends you get less than 1 percent of your daily calories from trans fats. In a 2,000-calorie diet, that's no more than 20 calories, or 2 grams of trans fats. To avoid trans fats, use monounsaturated oils (olive, canola or peanut) or polyunsaturated oils (soybean, corn and sunflower) for cooking. Also, eat foods containing Omega-3 fatty acids, like fatty fish and nuts. Lower your overall fat intake with more whole foods, like fruits, vegetables, whole-grains and low-fat dairy.

Trans fats are dangerous to your heart, but they're also easy to avoid if you know how.

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Limit your intake of trans fats by carefully reading labels and eliminating foods that have partially hydrogenated oils or don't specifically say oils are fully hydrogenated.

Knowing how to read food labels and understanding what those labels say helps you make better food choices that contribute to eating a healthy diet.

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