Trans Fats: A Modern Day Poison we Eat with Enthusiastic Abandon

September 16, 2006

Trans Fats: A Modern Day Poison we Eat with Enthusiastic Abandon 

 Competency # 13 Fats                         Reference:  NEJM April 13th 2006 

 A poison?  “Them’s fightin’ words.” But they are true.  Here’s why.  Denmark has now banned trans fats from its food supply.   Canada is currently considering a ban and the New York Department of Public Health has asked all the restaurants of New York City to figure how how to ban them.  That’s strong action.   And few of us understand why. 

 What are trans fats and why are they bad.  Trans fats are “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.”   To make a trans fat, you take a regularly unsaturated fatty acid, heat it a little with a catalyst and it turns into a more compact, more stable molecule.  Presto, chango, it’s more stable at room temperature.  

Crisco is a trans fat product.  It has a delicious creamy quality.  It allows French fries to remain crispy.  It keeps chocolate firm at room temperature and melt nice and slowly when you eat that nice chunk of chocolate.  It makes pie crust yummy.  You can tell, I love trans fats.  We all do.  The food industry does too.  They never spoil because no bacteria can digest them.  The enzymes to do so don't exist in nature.  Not in you either.  

So McDonald’s never has to change its vegetable oil.  But if no biological system can digest them, why are we surprised when we find that they aren’t so good for us?  It’s a $ 30 billion industry and 3-5% of our calories. Here is how they are not good.  The New England Journal of Medicine just published a review article on the topic. 

                  1. Trans fats INSTANTLY raise your LDL and lower your HDLs 

                  2. Increase the ratio of total cholesterol to HDL (strong predictor of vascular disease) 

                  3. Raise triglycerides (again: bad for you) 

                  4. Increase Lp(a) lipoprotein (another bad marker) 

                   5. Inflammatory markers go up:  Tumor Necrosis Factor, Interleukin 

                   6. C Reactive protein all increase  -  Many modern illnesses correlate with higher inflammatory markers.  Those names should be enough to scare all of us. 

                   7. Endothelial cells dysfunction (lining of blood vessels) – up to a 29% reduction on the ability of blood vessels to dilate and stretch 

                   8. Plasminogen activity reduction (Your bodies own clot-buster - busted) 

                   9. The list goes on as research is discovering the molecular mechanisms. I’ll stop.                


            Summary:  Trans fats are TWICE as bad as saturated animal fats. We eat about 3 % of our calories in the form of trans fats.  More if we eat out a lot in restaurants.  A 2% reduction or increase in trans fat consumption is predicted to have about a 23% change in your risk for vascular disease.  That means avoiding trans fats is about one of the most potent things you can do to protect your health.  In a society where 50% of us will die of vascular disease, this should be a first priority. You’ll find trans fats in: cookies, donuts, French fries, pie crusts, breaded coatings of fish or chicken, tortillas, pancakes, peanut butter, burritos, fried chicken.  Almost all fast food that’s fried is fried in trans fats.  Unless you live in Denmark… We take statin pills to lower our cholesterol and lower our inflammatory markers.  And then we eat trans fats so that we need our pills.  Make sense to you?  It’s time to learn to read the food label. 

www. What Will Work for Me:  This is a painful journey.  But one that has to start.  I’m off fries, most of the time.  And I’m eating less chocolate.  We threw out the can of Crisco and cook mostly with olive oil.  I order grilled items in the restaurant more, and soup more.  But pie, Oh dear, I guess I’m still at 2%.  If  I can drop down to 1%, it’s another 12% reduction in my heart disease risk.  I can’t stand losing any more friends from heart disease.  So do it.  Read the label.  

This column is written by Dr. John E. Whitcomb, MD, Brookfield Longevity, Brookfield, WI. (262-784-5300)