What Unhealthy Food Does to Your Body: Trans Fat

If you want to do one thing to improve your diet, avoiding food with trans fatty acids, or trans fat, is an excellent choice.

There is a bit of naturally occurring trans fat in meat and dairy foods, but that is not the concern. It is artificial trans fat that harms our health and has no redeeming nutritional value.

Artificial trans fat is created by adding hydrogen to liquid oil, turning it into a solid fat known as “partially hydrogenated oil.” Food manufacturers like partially hydrogenated oil because it costs little and increases a food’s shelf life.

How Trans Fat Affects the Heart and Nerves

Since people with diabetes are at increased risk for nerve damage and cardiovascular disease, avoiding trans fat is an especially wise decision.

Heart

Consuming trans fat contributes to heart disease by upsetting the body’s balance of high- and low-density cholesterol. Trans fat increases low-density lipoprotein (LDL) – the "bad" cholesterol – and may decrease high-density lipoprotein (HDL) – the "good" cholesterol.

Having elevated LDL's and diminished HDL's is associated with cardiovascular problems. It is estimated that reducing trans fat consumption could prevent 3,000 to 7,000 coronary heart disease deaths per year in the U.S.

Nerves

Our nerve cell membranes are also affected by trans fat. As the body breaks down fat from the food we eat, fatty acids are incorporated into our cell membranes. The makeup of cell membranes is very important since it determines what goes into and out of each cell.

Healthy nerve cell membranes are porous and fluid so nutrients can enter and the membranes can recognize and receive neurotransmitters – chemical messengers allowing nerve cells to communicate with each other.

Our cell membranes have no use for trans fats that only serve to pack the membranes too tightly, making them rigid and less porous. Each cell's capacity to replenish, rid itself of waste, and transmit vital messages is compromised.

Tips for Avoiding Trans Fat

Some manufacturers have voluntarily reduced or eliminated trans fats from their food, but many popular products are made with partially hydrogenated oils.

  1. To avoid trans fat at the grocery store, you must READ FOOD LABELS. Favor items that have 0 grams of trans fat. (Food with fewer than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving can be labeled as having 0 grams. Check the ingredient list for partially hydrogenated oil. If it is listed, the product is not trans-fat-free.)
  2. Focus on eating a diet rich in whole, fresh fruits and vegetables, lean sources of protein, whole grains and low-fat dairy products.
  3. Cook with monounsaturated fats such as extra-virgin olive oil or expeller-pressed canola oil.
  4. Commit to a diet free from trans fat by going through your pantry, cupboards and refrigerator, and tossing out items made with partially hydrogenated oil. (Yes, most of your packaged snack foods will end up in the dumpster, along with margarine, frozen pizzas, packaged baked good, coffee creamers and ready-to-spread frostings.)
  5. Avoid fried foods when you eat out, and do not make a habit of eating at fast-food restaurants. Do a bit of research and choose restaurants that do not prepare food with partially hydrogenated oil.

Other than avoiding artificial trans fats, it is wise to limit our intake of natural saturated fats as well. Our body needs some saturated fat to function properly, but most of us would be wise to eat less of it. Check with your doctor.

Sources: CDC and Stanford
Photo credit: John Kannenberg

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