Nutrition

What are Trans fats?

What are trans fats? Are they allowed on a plant-based diet? If you’ve been following this series of articles, you will already be aware that a plant-based diet does not include any animal products, including fats. But does that mean that all vegetable fats are OK? Let’s explore trans fats in particular in this article.

Definition

High on the list of “bad” fats are trans fats (transformed fatty acids or TFAs), or partially hydrogenated fats. These are a type of unsaturated fat but that does not make them good. They only occur naturally, in very small amounts, in meat and dairy products from ruminants (animals that chew the cud) like cows and sheep. Most hydrogenated fats consumed today are industrially created through the partial hydrogenation of plant oils or animal fats.

History

The first patents for these industrially created trans fats date back to the early 1900’s. Since 1914, people have been getting these fats in their foods from hydrogenated oils. These were introduced as vegetable shortenings. Think Crisco. It was supposed to help Americans by replacing saturated animal fats with “healthier” fats from plant oils. Unfortunately, that was not the end result. But these remained popular for many years as partially hydrogenated oils did not go rancid easily, increasing shelf life of products by 500%. It was also cheaper than solid animal fat and was easy to add to processed foods and made liquid oils spreadable in applications like margarine.

TFA chemistry

To understand the impact on the body of these transformed fats, let’s take a little detour into fat chemistry (you can always skip down to the punch line if you want!). Saturated fats have NO double bonds which result in a fat being solid at room temperature. Unsaturated fats have at least one double bond which results in an oil being liquid at room temperature. Polyunsaturated fats have multiple double bonds – the more the healthier. Most fat sources like olive oil, palm oil, coconut oil and so on have a mixture of these different types of fats, they are not just a single type. Normal unsaturated fats have double bonds that place the hydrogen atoms on either side of the bond pointing in the same direction. Trans fats, on the other hand, have their hydrogen atoms pointing in different directions, changing the shape and chemistry of the fat molecule. It affects the melting point of the fat, as well as other chemical activities and the enzyme fit. The shape of a molecule is very important in how the body deals with it.

Gumming up the works

So why does this matter? It matters because fats are your body’s building blocks for other very important substances such as hormones, neurotransmitters, fuel for energy, and production of prostaglandins. These are multistep processes that happen with the aid of specific enzymes. Trans fatty acids put a kink into step 3 of a 6 or 7 step process that effectively stops the body from being able to create these important substances. This results in low or inadequate levels of hormones like dopamine (needed for a good mood), serotonin, and others.

Other effects in the body are stickier platelets which increase your risk of strokes and heart attacks, and clotting problems. They also make holes in cell walls which result in higher incidences of allergic reactions and it affects the immune system negatively. These TFAs also disturn naturally occurring electrical processes related to energy production and electron exchange reactions in the body.

TFAs and Atherosclerosis

TFAs have been shown to increase cholesterol levels in the body as well as acting to quickly raise triglyceride levels. If cholesterol (animal products) is included in the diet, the negative effect of trans fats is magnified. Trans fats also increase blood levels of “bad” fats like LDL.

These fats are the result of chemical processes and are not usually found in nature. For this reason, our bodies don’t even have the enzymes necessary to break them down and metabolize them. So partially hydrogenated fats are stored as fat in our bodies instead of being broken down and having the calories provide us with energy.

Other Negative Health effects

Trans fats have also been shown to increase your risk for cancer, and lower your body’s defenses against cancer. TFA use decreases testorone levels in animal studies and increases abnormal sperm production. It interferes with pr egnancy and decreases the richness of breast milk. Even after completely stopping the ingestion of TFAs, it can take your body up to 2 years to rid itself of these damaging, artificial fatty acids.

How to Avoid Trans fats

The number one way to avoid trans fats is to READ LABELS! They usually appear as either hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils on the label.  TFAs are found in mostly in processed foods, margarines/spreads, and baked goods. Here in the U.S. legislation has been passed to eliminate trans fats in foods this year, 2018. Similar movements exist in Europe. But there are still large parts of the world, many in poorer countries, where food still contains these very bad fats.

Be aware of the hazards with these artificial fats and you will come out ahead!

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