The truth about trans fats
‘Fat hate’ is unfashionable these days; 2015’s health hipster is more likely to be the guy buttering his rib-eye than dry-frying soy patties. But if there’s one thing the clean-eaters and calorie-counters alike have always agreed on it’s that trans fats are on the blacklist.
On Tuesday, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) moved to eliminate artificial trans fats – AKA partially hydrogenated oils – from all foods by 2019. The three-year gap is intended to give manufacturers a chance to “reformulate their products”, which sounds considerably less appetising than “change the recipe”. According to the FDA’s acting commissioner, Stephen Ostroff, the ban is expected to “prevent thousands of fatal heart attacks every year”. Here in the UK, pressure groups and government watchdogs have been demanding a similar ban for several years, with no such luck. So is it time we started boycotting biscuits? Or are have the stats been, well, fattened up a bit?
“The main issue here is cholesterol,” explains registered dietitian Dr Frankie Phillips. “Trans fats have a worse effect than saturated fat. Sat fats raise bad LDL cholesterol, but they also increase good HDL too. However, trans fats only raise LDL.” In short, their purpose is purely to extend the shelf life of processed foods, while also making your guilty pleasures denser and chewier. They have no health benefits.
The good news: many shoppers are now wise to the effects of trans fats, and in recent years its use has fallen out of favour with food manufacturers. Today, trans fats are less likely to be found in UK products, says Dr Phillips: “We don’t have a big issue with it here.” Official guidelines dictate that we need to keep trans fats below 2% of our total energy intake to swerve their artery-clogging effects. But, “UK surveys consistently show that that our average intake falls below this threshold. US diets are higher in trans fats.”
Still, if you’re a pie and pasties kinda guy, you could still be at risk. While it’s true that trans fats have been phased out somewhat since their ’80s heyday – when, ironically, they were marketed as a diet-friendly alternative – you’ll still find them in some baked goods and junk food. And it’s not just your heart at risk, either; they’ve also been implicated in diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and, most recently, mood disorders. A new study published in theJournal of Health Psychology found that people whose diets are high in trans fatty acids have more trouble recognising and regulating their emotions. If you really need scientific evidence that doubling up on pork pies won’t make you any less hangry, this is it.
Keep in mind, too, that it’s only the fake stuff you need to worry about. Naturally occurring trans fats are also found in dairy products and meats such as beef and lamb. However, before you spit out that mouthful of grass-fed mince, you should know that the amounts are so small that they don’t pose any threat. But munch in moderation all the same: “A radical diet change can prevent a lot of fatal diseases, but if you’re still eating a diet that’s high in saturated fat, you’ll still be at greater risk,” says Phillips. “Reducing trans fats is part of the solution – but it’s not the whole solution.”
Your takeaway tip: cut back on said takeaway, along with anything plucked from a service station fridge with a sell-by date that’ll outlast your driving licence. Your best defence against heart disease – unsensational as it sounds – is to err toward natural, unadulterated foods and to rely on good old common sense when monitoring what makes its way into your shopping basket. To suggest that this ban alone will save thousands of lives seems like something of a stretch. There are many factors affecting your heart health – your weight, alcohol intake, exercise habits and genetics all play a part. If you want to cut back on pastries, that’s a good thing. But swapping them for trans fat-free fare defeats the object.
Video: What Are Trans Fats & Why Are They Bad?
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