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Heart Smart Living
Heart Smart Living

Cardiologist, author, and heart health expert Dr. Sarah Samaan offers advice on how to live a heart smart life.

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Trans Fats: What You Need to Know

Trans fats have been a hot topic for several years, but most people still don’t know exactly what they are or how to spot them.  A trans fat usually starts out innocently enough as soybean oil. It is put through a chemical process that fundamentally changes its structure, making it solid at room temperature, much more stable, and less likely to become rancid. The word “trans” refers to the chemical structure of the new fat. Miniscule amounts of trans fats occur naturally in beef and lamb.

Trans Fats in Foods

Trans fats are typically found in vegetable shortening and margarine. From there, they make their way into bakery products, fast food, restaurant food, and processed foods. Trans fats have been around since the early 1900s, but really began to pick up steam in the past few decades as Americans clamored for food that was fast and convenient.

The Truth About Trans Fats

For many years, we believed that trans fats were safer than butter and other saturated fats, but by the early 1990s it became clear that trans fats were much more harmful. They hurt our arteries by raising LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides, reducing HDL (good) cholesterol, increasing inflammation, and making our blood vessels more vulnerable to blood clots. Trans fats may also contribute to diabetes and abdominal obesity. In 2003, the average American took in about six grams of trans fats every day, an amount that has been shown to increase heart attack risk by as much as 40 percent compared with those who eat one gram or less daily.

In 1994, Harvard researchers estimated that trans fats were directly to blame for somewhere between 30,000 and 100,000 deaths from heart disease each year in the U.S. alone.  Despite this, manufacturers in the United States were not required to list trans fats on the nutrition information label until 2008.

Reading the Label

What many American consumers do not know is that a product containing half a milligram of trans fats per serving is allowed to be labeled as “trans fat free.” This is important, because even a gram or two of saturated fats may affect our heart health. To be sure, read the ingredients label. If you see the phrase “partially hydrogenated,” then you know that you’ve spotted a trans fat.  To avoid trans fats, choose foods that are as close to nature as possible. Palm oil, a saturated fat, is often used as a substitute for trans fat. It’s a little healthier, but not by much. (See my June 6, 2011 column for details).

Earth friendlier—and fresher—ways to calm a snack attack include:

  • fruits
  • vegetables
  • whole grain breads
  • nuts
  • low fat yogurt
  • 1

Tags: Diet and Heart Health , Risk Factors for Heart Disease

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About the Author


Dr. Samaan is an acclaimed cardiologist, writer, and heart health educator.