Saying Goodbye to Trans-Fat

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trans fat
10 Jul 2018

That smell!  The one I smell passing the many bakeries on the way in to work in the morning.  The one when you walk into the Kabalas Panim (cocktail hour) at a wedding when you get closer to the hot dishes being served or carved.  And the one you smell Erev Shabbos in your neighborhood.  It just makes you want to eat it NOW!  It’s the fat in the food that’s doing it.  It goes right into your nose and it triggers a reflex in your brain telling you to eat me now! Fat—it’s become a nasty word, but it shouldn’t be. 

The United States governmental agencies in charge of nutrition recommendations have not been known for providing accurate information.  As a matter of fact, it was these very agencies that 50 years ago were promoting the “fact” that saturated fat was causing heart attacks and people should switch to polyunsaturated fats.  It seemed like we finally had the cause and the fix and heart disease would finally decrease. Unfortunately, it just didn’t turn out that way.  Actually, they were, by default, promoting not only polyunsaturated fats, but by telling people that they should use margarine instead of butter, they began encouraging the public to consume trans fats. We now know—trans fats clog your arteries.  And so it started!  Decades of promoting wrong and dangerous eating that resulted in an increase in heart disease and type 2 diabetes. These policies were also were a huge contributor to the obesity epidemic.  Unfortunately, it also brought about an increase in deaths from those diseases.  It was only in the early 1990’s that scientists began to realize the extent of damage trans fats were doing to the human race.  It has taken until now to be able to say that as of 2019, in the United States, trans fats will be illegal. 

After 2018, you can say goodbye to margarines and packaged snack foods (at least as you remember them). In response to overwhelming evidence linking trans-fat intake to heart disease—along with resulting pressure from health organizations—the FDA has taken measures to remove manmade trans-fat from the food supply, which is usually found in the form of partially hydrogenated oil, citing that it’s “no longer generally recognized as safe.” But that doesn’t mean all trans fats will go away. They also occur naturally in small amounts in certain meat and dairy products. The jury is still out on whether natural trans-fat is anywhere near as harmful as the kind made in a lab.  In addition, the World Health Organization (WHO) wants it banned worldwide. 

2006 research in the New England Journal of Medicine shows, for every 2 percent of calorie intake that comes from trans fats, a person’s heart disease risk increases by an incredible 23 percent. While there’s still some debate about the relative health merits of saturated and unsaturated fat, health experts now unequivocally reject trans-fat. Let’s look at 2 localities that banned trans fats and see the positive effect it had on the public health.

Researchers who studied Denmark’s policy against trans found that three years after it went into effect, the mortality rate from cardiovascular disease declined by an average of 14.2 deaths per 100,000 people per year relative to a control scenario showing what would have happened if Denmark didn’t introduce the policy. In New York State, researchers looked at the impact of artificial trans-fat restrictions. The main finding: The regulations reduced the cardiovascular death rate by 4.5 percent. Another study found hospital admissions for heart attack and stroke also declined by 6 percent in New York counties with trans-fat restrictions, when compared to state counties without those same restrictions.

So trans is out and our health will benefit greatly.  However, what fats should we eat?  Fat is one of the three macronutrients that our bodies must consume in order to get our basic nutrition and be healthy.  The other 2 are carbohydrate and protein.  Fats are needed for 5 different functions:

There is no question that the healthiest of the fats are the monounsaturated variety.  Olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, safflower oil and sesame oil all have a good amount of monounsaturated fats.   Other sources include avocados, peanut butter, and many nuts and seeds.  People are asking me a lot lately about coconut oil.  There is a lot of false information out there.  When you separate the science from the sales pitch, coconut oil is not nearly the health-boosting, fat-fighting miracle that its fans want it to be.  “There’s no strong evidence directly tying coconut oil to either a greater or reduced risk of cardiovascular disease,” says Patrick Wilson, RD, PhD, assistant professor of exercise sciences at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. He explains that while studies show coconut oil intake raises levels of total cholesterol and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, some of these studies found that HDL (“good”) cholesterol also increases, so overall cholesterol numbers may not worsen or improve. 

It’s likely that coconut oil is a reasonable choice but certainly not a magical cure. If you like its flavor or the moistness it adds to baked goods, it’s probably fine to include modest amounts (no more than a tablespoon daily) as part of an overall healthy eating plan.

Fat in general is not a bad word.  Like anything else we eat, if you eat too much, you will gain weight.  Just like protein and carbohydrate, our bodies require that we eat high quality choices.  We need some of everything.  As far as how we look at saturated fats today, they are not the evil doer that we once thought.  But, that doesn’t mean that they are very good for you either. “Lack of harm is not the same thing as being good for you,” says David Katz, MD, MPH, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. “All these studies show is that there is more than one way to eat badly. While high intakes of saturated fat can be a marker of a poor overall diet, when saturated fat calories are supplanted by refined carbs or added sugars, things are equally detrimental.” Katz says these studies shouldn’t be construed to suggest that raising saturated fat intake does not raise the risk for heart disease. “Getting your fill of saturated fat from the usual sources like pizza and oversized burgers is still not a wise move.”

There is still solid evidence that saturated fat is not an innocent bystander (Sacks et al. 2017). A rigorous review of randomized controlled studies concluded that a reduction in saturated fat intake does result in a drop in cardiovascular disease risk, and replacing this type of fat with polyunsaturated fats like those in walnuts, flax and fatty fish is heart protective (Hooper et al. 2015). Further, Harvard researchers found that among nearly 130,000 people, those who ate more unsaturated fat (mono and poly) instead of saturated fat had a lower risk for heart conditions (Li et al. 2015). But when people cut saturated fat from their diet and replaced it with refined carbohydrates, all benefits were canceled out.

No one should think that eating loads of saturated fat is healthy. For the record, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015–2020 advises limiting saturated fat to less than 10% of total daily calories. Most experts still recommend focusing your fat-eating efforts on the unsaturated variety, as modeled in the all reliable Mediterranean diet. But as long as your diet is dominated by whole foods, a very occasional taste of meat, cheesecake or butter, won’t do much harm.

Fat is not the enemy, unless it’s the trans variety.  Monounsaturated fats are even good for you and essential in the diet.  Saturated fats on a limited basis aren’t harmful, but overconsumption is still problematic.  Like all categories of food, keep your intake low.  Eating fats in moderate amounts will “add hours to your day, days to your year and years to your life.” 

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.