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What Is Trans Fat? Plus How to Remove It from Your Diet for Good

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Trans fat - Dr. Axe

We know the body needs healthy fats to run at an optimal level. The problem is the standard American diet contains far too many trans fat foods and artificial ingredients.

Americans consume far more trans fats than what’s recommended or considered healthy, with about 19 percent of their calorie consumption coming from saturated and trans fats. The recommended intake is less than 10 percent of total calories for saturated fats and as little as possible from trans fats.

Now, the truth about saturated fat is that it can be healthy when eaten in moderation and when consuming the proper types of saturated fat, such as MCT oil. Trans fats, however, are downright dangerous.

What Is Trans Fat?

Trans fats, or trans fatty acids, are naturally present in meat and dairy products of ruminant animals. Some animals naturally produce trans fats in their guts, and food from these animals can contain small quantities of these fats.

There are also industrial or artificial trans fats that make up most of this fatty acid’s consumption. These are created by adding hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid.

They are known as the unhealthiest fats you can eat, but manufacturers often use them in fried and processed foods.

These cooking oils are often genetically modified and downright unhealthy, linked to the development of cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome. They can even become rancid, causing more health concerns.

Dangers of Trans Fats

Trans fats are consumed at way too high of quantities in the U.S., and the health effects are staggering. Here’s a breakdown of the key dangers of eating foods containing trans fat.

1. Impact Cholesterol Levels

Trans fats raise bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and lower good (HDL) cholesterol levels. Research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition indicates that there’s unequivocal evidence that trans fatty acids increase plasma concentrations of LDL cholesterol and reduce concentrations of HDL cholesterol.

Researchers estimate that, conservatively, 30,000 premature deaths in the United States are attributable to consumption of trans fatty acids.

2. Increase Risk of Heart Disease

Consuming too many trans fats foods may increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. Research from Harvard Medical School that included controlled trials and observational studies found that trans fatty acid consumption from partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) “adversely affects multiple cardiovascular risk factors and contributes significantly to increased risk of coronary heart disease events.”

Those findings are corroborated in research published in the Pakistan Journal of Medical Sciences, which suggests that high consumption of trans fats in Pakistan may be one of the factors for the increased burden of cardiovascular disease. Researchers suggest that consumption of dietary fats low in trans fatty acids would be helpful in reducing the risk of heart disease in South Asia.

Another study published in Molecular Nutrition & Food Research indicates that trans fat intake is associated with a variety of cardiovascular complications, including atherosclerosis and other deleterious cardiovascular effects.

3. Increase Risk of Diabetes

Trans fats have also been proven to contribute to obesity and diabetes. One study published in the New England Journal of Medicine includes over 84,000 women who were free of heart disease, diabetes and cancer when the study began.

During 16 years of follow-up, researchers documented 3,300 new cases of type 2 diabetes, with overweight and obesity the most important predictors. They highlighted that those who consumed the most trans fatty acids had a 40 percent higher risk of having diabetes compared to those with lower risk diets and lifestyle patterns.

Research from the Wake Forest University School of Medicine found that a trans fats diet induces abdominal obesity and changes in insulin sensitivity in monkeys, and it’s believed to do the same in humans.

Related: What Is Shortening? Uses, Side Effects & Healthy Alternatives

Trans Fat Foods

It’s no wonder the U.S. has a health crisis on its hands, particularly in regard to obesity and heart disease, given how many trans fats we consume.

Trans fatty acids are present naturally in some meat and dairy products, but research suggests that overconsumption of industrial trans fat foods is the most dangerous to your health.

Trans fats are present in PHOs that are commonly used in fried foods. You’ll find trans fats in these foods:

  • Frozen pizza
  • Mozzarella sticks
  • Packaged baked goods
  • Packaged chips and snacks
  • Packaged and refrigerated dough
  • Fried meats and fast foods
  • Margarine
  • Vegetable shortening
  • Nondairy coffee creamers

How to Avoid Them

The best way to avoid eating trans fats is by eating a diet rich in fresh, whole foods that includes vegetables, fruits, organic meats and legumes. Stick to healthy fats, like those found in olive oil, avocado, nuts and wild-caught salmon.

If you eat a packaged food product, read the label carefully, and avoid foods that contain partially hydrogenated oils or other items. Even some “trans fat free” foods can contain 0.5 grams per serving, so read the ingredient list to be sure the food is actually free of these damaging fats.

It’s possible for trans fats to be present in processed foods but not listed on the ingredient label, even as PHO. That’s why reducing your consumption of processed foods as much as possible is so important for your health.

Related: Foods that Contain Gluten — Be Wary of the “Gluten-Free” Label

Removing Them from Products

The good news is the American public is becoming more and more aware about the dangers of trans fats, and increasingly, Americans are concerned about and aware of what they’re putting in their bodies.

In 2015, the Food and Drug Administration ruled that artificial trans fats were unsafe to eat, and it gave food makers three years to eliminate them from their food supplies. The official ban began in 2018, and it applies to foods that contain industrially produced PHOs. Manufacturers are now tasked with replacing unhealthy fats with healthier options.

Small amounts of trans fats are still present naturally in dairy and meat products, and these products are still permitted.

In 2018, the World Health Organization announced a plan to urge governments around the globe to eliminate the use of trans fats in food products. WHO put out a set of guidelines that eradicates trans fats from global food supplies by 2023.

Conclusion

  • Trans fats are a form of unsaturated fats that occur naturally in dairy and meat products but are also made industrially to be used in processed, packaged foods.
  • There are many health dangers related to these fats, including increased LDL cholesterol levels, reduced HDL cholesterol, greater risk of heart disease, greater risk of obesity and increased risk of diabetes.
  • In 2015, the FDA announced that industrial trans fats will be banned from food products beginning in 2018. WHO set guidelines for eliminating them globally by 2023 in an effort to save millions of lives.
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