Trans Fat and Heart Health: What to Know

By Willow Jarosh, R.D., and Stephanie Clarke, R.D.

Q: I’ve heard I should stay away from trans fat because I have high cholesterol. What foods have trans fat? And are they really that bad?

A: What you’ve heard is true—trans fat really are that bad. Eliminating as many sources of trans fat from your diet as possible is an important part of taking care of your heart and health. In fact, everyone should avoid them, even people who don’t have high cholesterol. Here’s what you need to know about these fats and why they’re so unhealthy for your heart:

Trans fat are created when a liquid fat is chemically altered to become a solid. Some food companies and restaurants use trans fat in products because they offer an inexpensive way to add flavor and texture to foods and increase shelf life. You’ll most often find man-made trans fat in baked goods, including pastries, pie crusts, biscuits, crackers; certain stick margarines (all Smart Balance® products are trans-fat free); and shortening. They can also be present in fried foods like French fries and fried chicken.

Research shows that consuming trans fat has a double-whammy effect on your heart health by raising your LDL (bad) cholesterol while lowering your HDL (good) cholesterol. According to the American Heart Association, trans fat can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke, and possibly type-2 diabetes.

You can spot trans fat in foods by religiously reading labels on packaged foods. It’s especially important to carefully scan the labels of the foods listed above, but keep in mind that many unsuspecting foods, like breakfast cereal and coffee creamer, can also contain trans fat. First check the nutrition facts panel; the FDA now requires all food manufactures to list trans fat. But even if the trans fat line reads “0 grams”, the food’s not necessarily in the clear yet. There’s a loophole in labeling that allows manufacturers to label a product as having 0 grams of trans fat as long as it has fewer than 0.5 grams per serving. It seems like a small amount, but considering that the American Heart Association recommends getting less than 2 grams of trans fat a day, you could easily surpass it. If you eat two or three servings of a product with .49 grams of trans fat, you’re almost at that daily limit. Plus, there are some naturally occurring trans fat in foods like meat and dairy, and while experts are not sure if they have the same negative impact on your cholesterol, they do count towards the total daily intake. So along with looking at the Nutrition Facts, always remember to check the ingredients list. If you see “partially hydrogenated oil,” the product contains trans fat—and is worth reconsidering.

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