Nutritional advice always seems to be in flux, with experts disagreeing about what is and isn’t healthy however one main point of agreement is the dangers of Trans Fats.
This article explores Trans Fats, why they are terrible for your health and how you can best avoid them.
What Are Trans Fats?
Trans fats also go by the names ‘trans fatty acids’ and are a type of unsaturated fat. Unsaturated fats are categorized by their chemical structure – they have a minimum of one double bond.
The configuration can be in ‘cis’ or ‘trans’ positions which is referring to the placement of hydrogen atoms in relations to that double bond. ‘Cis’ means the same side and ‘trans’ means the opposite side. The ‘Trans’ or opposite structure of the hydrogen atoms can cause health problems.
Natural And Artificial Trans Fats
Animal products have naturally occurring Trans Fats and so have been in our diets from when we began consuming meat and dairy.
Cattle, sheep and goats are ruminant animals which produce trace amounts of Trans Fats. These are produced by specific gut bacteria that help to ferment and digest grass and the side effect are these ruminant Trans Fats.
The Trans Fats found in beef and lamb only make up 3-9% of the total fat and 2-5% of the fat in dairy products (1).
Artificial Trans Fats are also known as industrial fats or hydrogenated fats. These are massed produced from vegetable oil because it is cheaper to produce than other semi-solid fats like butter and have a much longer shelf life.
These artificial Trans Fats are made by combing hydrogen to liquid vegetables oils under pressure to change the oil from a liquid to a solid (5).
However these Trans Fats are a known contributor to blocked arteries that increases your risk of serious or fatal heart disease.
While humans have been consuming natural trans fats for a long time, the chemical process of producing hydrogenated fats is a modern addition to our diets and has lead to compounding health issues like obesity.
The Modern Diet
Artificial hydrogenated vegetable oils contain the highest percentage of Trans Fats. They are popular in modern foods as they are cheap to produce and have a long shelf life – making them perfect for highly processed food.
The average daily intake for the US adult in 2003 was 4.6 grams of artificial Trans Fat. This was reduced to 1.3 grams daily by 2016 (6).
This is mainly due to Government and various Health Organizations action on the consumption and education around Trans Fats such as the FDA has recently removed the ‘Generally Recognized as Safe’ status for Trans Fats.
Health advisors have said that hydrogenated Trans Fat consumption should actually be zero due to its various health risks.
Trans Fats And Cancer
As there are very few studies looking into Trans Fats and our health, advanced studies between Trans Fats and cancer are uncommon.
I am not suggesting it does not cause cancer, there is just little evidence proving this link at the moment.
Increased Heart Disease Risk
Trans Fats have become a focus of studies and clinical trials recently to gauge their impacts on our health.
The focus was on consuming artificial trans fats rather than those from natural fats or carbohydrates. They tested for indicators of increased risk in heart diseases such as increases in cholesterol and the lipoproteins that carry cholesterol around the body.
The results saw that when the caloric intake of carbohydrates were replaced with trans fats there was a significant increase in LDL, or the bad, cholesterol but no increases in the good cholesterol HDL. Other natural fats increase both types of cholesterol, not just the bad one (10).
Replacing dietary fats with Trans Fats also negatively affected lipoproteins ratios which is also a risk factor for serious heart diseases (11).
Other observational studies link the consumption of Trans Fats to the increase is heart diseases such as this study that links Trans Fasts to Coronary heart disease.
This study saw a strong correlation between Dutch men with high Trans Fat intakes and their risks of Coronary heart disease.
Trans Fats And Insulin Sensitivity
The relationship between diabetes and Trans Fat consumption is being explored. A study looked into 80,000 women and their intakes of Trans Fats. They concluded that those who ate
A large study following 84,941 women over 16 years found that those who consumed the most Trans Fats had a 40% higher risk of diabetes (12).
On the other hand, there are other studies that did not find the same relationship between Trans Fats and diabetes risk (13).
Potentially the initial studies relationship is due to the higher BMI of those who ate high levels of Trans Fats.
A particularly prominent study on spanned over 6 years using monkey’s who were giving 8% of their caloric intake as Trans Fats.
The result was elevated fructosamine – which is an indicator of high blood sugar levels, abdominal obesity and caused resistance to insulin (17).
While there have been a few controlled trials with humans looking at the correlation between Trans Fats and diabetes risks, the results are inconsistent.
The take away message is there is no current proof of a direct link between Trans Fat consumption and diabetes however it can increase weight, especially around the belly area. These are known factors in diabetes risks.
Links between Trans Fats And Inflammation In The Body
Excess inflammation in the body is believed to be among the leading drivers of many chronic, Western diseases. This includes illness such as heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, arthritis and numerous others.
There has been some investigation into Trans Fats effect on inflammatory markers. One study replaced the use of butter with margarine but didn’t find any difference in these markers (22).
Other studies did find an increase in the IL-6 and TNF alpha markers when placed on controlled diets with higher concentrations of Trans Fats rather than other nutrients (23)
Avoiding Trans Fats In Your Diet
While there have been some improvements in the use of hydrogenated Trans Fats – they are still present in almost all processed foods.
Unfortunately food regulations are letting consumers down, such as in the US manufacturers are allowed to use the “Trans Fat Free” label as long as there is less than 0.5 grams present in each serving.
This is misleading and could result in those small levels of hydrogenated Trans Fats incrementally adding up in your system.
Reading labels is the normal advice to avoid certain ingredients we know are harmful however this is not always enough as proven by this labeling regulation.
Avoid ingredients like “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated”, vegetable oils like soy bean or canola oils are particularly bad.
One study in the US saw that these oils 0.56% to 4.2% of the fats were Trans Fats but there was no indication of this on the labels (26).
Essentially the only way to 100% avoid these nasty Trans Fats, particularly hydrogenated ones is to skip processed foods altogether. This is a great healthy choice anyway, as processed foods are often packs with sugar, salt and a whole lot of chemicals that don’t belong in your body.
Examples are to eat real butter over margarine products. Choose coconut oil or olive oil instead of harmful vegetable oils. Avoid those processed foods – basically anything pre-made and pre-packed. Lastly, opt for home cooking rather than fast food.
Trans Fats exist naturally in animal products. It’s called ruminant Trans Fats and is considered safe when consumed in moderation due to the low ratio’s in the food.
The industrialized process of creating artificial trans fats from hydrogenated vegetable oil is considered unsafe and potentially toxic, even in moderation. Studies have strongly linked these hydrogenated artificial trans fats to heart disease risk.
Trans Fats also encourage obesity in animals and humans. Extra fat deposited around abdomen is a cause of insulin resistance, hormonal imbalances and high risk of developing type II diabetes.
Regrettably labeling regulation for processed junk food as well as vegetable oils means they do not have to disclose low Trans Fat ratios. This means packaging is not always a trustworthy source of information.
The volumes of Trans Fats we consume in our modern diets have steadily been reducing as more education is circulating about the negative health effects. However we should be aiming for a zero percent daily intake, as this ‘food’ is not safe for human consumption.