Why You Should Avoid Trans Fats, Other Bad Foods for the Heart
Knowing what foods to avoid can be just as important as eating the right foods for heart health.
Trans fats have grabbed headlines in recent months, as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers tighter restrictions on the use of these ingredients designed to preserve a product’s shelf life. The FDA recently reached a preliminary determination that partially hydrogenated oils, which are major sources of trans fats, are not generally safe. That could be the first major step toward removing them from the food supply. If the FDA no longer approves of the use of partially hydrogenated oils, then foods containing those “unapproved” ingredients cannot be sold legally in the U.S.
Trans fats are considered dangerous to heart health because they tend to increase LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and reduce HDL (“good”) cholesterol, explains dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, LD, with the Section for Preventive Cardiology and Rehabilitation at Cleveland Clinic. She applauds the FDA’s efforts so far.
“I think it’s great,” Zumpano says. “Trans fats should be banned.”
What is partially hydrogenated oil?
In simplest terms, partially hydrogenated oil is the result of adding hydrogen to vegetable oil. The process makes the oil solid, like margarine and shortening, instead of liquid. And it helps preserve the shelf life of processed foods.
It’s not entirely clear why trans fats raise LDL cholesterol, though it’s believed that adding hydrogen to oil may make the food harder to digest, so the body recognizes the trans fats as saturated fats.
Avoiding trans fats
Unfortunately, avoiding trans fats in your diet isn’t as simple as looking on the nutrition label for a “zero” next to trans fats. In fact, a food can have just under 0.5 grams of trans fats, and still be labeled as containing “zero trans fats” by law.
You should also look for the phrase “partially hydrogenated oil” on the label to know if it contains trans fats, Zumpano advises. “Trans fats are required on a nutrition label,” she adds. “The goal is to have zero trans fats. There is no ‘safe’ level.”
While some restaurants and food manufacturers have voluntarily stopped using trans fats, the ingredient can still be found in various types of French fries, donuts, frozen pizza, microwave popcorn, coffee creamers, as well as packaged chips, cookies and other baked goods.
Other food no-nos
Of course, trans fats have plenty of company among ingredients that should be avoided or minimized in a heart-healthy diet. Zumpano recommends looking out for hidden forms of sodium, in the form of monosodium glutamate, as well as watching for unexpectedly high levels of sodium in foods such as condiments, cold cuts, cheese, soups and even bread.
You should also try to minimize saturated fat intake, as it can contribute to higher LDL levels and weight gain. Saturated fats can be found in high levels in red meat, as well as in tropical oils, such as palm, palm kernel and coconut oils. Healthier oils include olive oil, sunflower and peanut oils.
Zumpano also urges people to stay away from added sugars, especially in the form of high-fructose corn syrup.
Making the healthiest dietary decisions isn’t always easy, especially when some of the most convenient food options are the ones high in trans fats, added sugars or sodium. Zumpano says that behavioral changes can help eliminate or reduce the amount of heart-unhealthy ingredients in your diet.
“One of the most common problems I see is people skipping meals and then having unhealthy snacks, like candy bars, as a result of being hungry,” she says. Zumpano also recommends not adding salt to food at home, and instead using other seasonings. She notes that, out of habit, people tend to add salt before even tasting their food.
“You can make adjustments to your eating style, whether you’re eating out or preparing meals at home,” Zumpano says. “Reducing unhealthy fats, salt and sugar can be done.”