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Navigating the Trans Fat Terrain: Strategies for Healthcare Professionals to Protect Patient Health

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Navigating the Trans Fat Terrain: Strategies for Healthcare Professionals to Protect Patient Health

Few food ingredients pose as serious health risks as trans fats. With their proinflammatory impacts, trans fats are known to have deleterious effects on overall health. What’s worse, trans fats are often hidden, lurking in the foods we eat. Within this article, the goal is to expose the dangers of trans fats, point out their common food sources and uncover hidden ones, understand the regulatory requirements for trans fats, and empower our readers with the necessary information to improve their diet and overall health with better food choices.


Understanding Trans Fats

By definition, the majority of trans fats are unsaturated fats that are mechanically engineered to have a hydrogen atom added in a process called hydrogenation. Starting as a liquid oil, the hydrogenation process makes these fats solid, giving them more stability, extending their shelf-life, and enhancing food texture. Other minor sources of trans fats include those in ruminant animal products and those that occur during other heat-based chemicalization processes.

Trans fats have quickly become ubiquitous in the food supply of the United States. From center aisles of the grocery store to grab-and-go convenience store items, to vending machine snacks, trans fats are often hidden in readily available foods. Sometimes under the disguise of “partially hydrogenated oils,” trans fats are found in a large amount of processed foods, most often in fried foods, baked goods, creamy candies, processed packaged snacks, and margarine. 

Trans fats have demonstrated functional purposes in the food supply, by allowing the production of foods that can be sold and distributed to last longer without spoilage. However, research has demonstrated that trans fats have a tremendous negative impact on public health. The more we learn about trans fats, the more they are known to have deleterious metabolic and inflammatory effects. 

Health Risks Associated with Trans Fat Consumption

Trans fats have a variety of deleterious health effects with an increased risk of developing chronic diseases. They are well-known for their negative pro-inflammatory properties. Trans fats promote inflammation by upregulating the production of inflammatory cytokines and oxidative stress markers

Their proinflammatory effects further increase the risks of weight gain, obesity, and metabolic syndrome. Trans fats are also linked to a greater incidence of insulin resistance, impaired fasting glucose, and type 2 diabetes mellitus. Clinical trials including healthy and overweight or diabetic individuals demonstrate that trans fats worsen insulin resistance in individuals who are overweight or in individuals with preexisting insulin resistance. In turn, they may have smaller effects in younger individuals with lower body fat. 

Trans fats are also directly implicated in increased cardiovascular disease risk of at least 23% by raising levels of harmful low-density lipoprotein cholesterol. This predisposes to plaque buildup in the coronary arteries, which can lead to heart attack or stroke. Links have also been established between trans fats and increased risk of many types of cancers, including colorectal and prostate cancers. More research is needed to understand what additional types of cancers may be predisposed from diets high in trans fats and how to quantify the carcinogenic effects of trans fats.

Regulatory Measures and Labeling

Because of their harmful effects on health, governmental regulatory agencies and health organizations have taken steps to reduce or eliminate trans fats from foods. The World Health Organization recommends trans fat regulations that ban them from the food supply. However, not all nations have followed the trans fat elimination recommendations, especially lower-to-middle-income countries.

Food labels are an imperative tool for consumers to understand what ingredients are in the foods they eat, allowing individuals to make informed decisions about their diet and their health. Traditionally, under the Nutrition Facts section of the food label, the fat content of foods is listed as Total Fat, and then it is subdivided into Saturated Fat and now Trans Fat. The United States Food and Drug Administration now requires food manufacturers to label trans fat content on food product packaging under the fat section, as an effort to allow consumers to make informed choices about the foods they consume and to prioritize choosing healthier options. However, trans fats only must be listed if they add up to 0.5 g or more in each serving of food. So, it is imperative to not only look under the total fat and fat subsections of the nutrition facts label but also to look in the ingredients list for the words “hydrogenated oils” or “partially hydrogenated oils,” which indicate the presence of trans fats in some amount.

Strategies for Healthcare Professionals

Understanding the dangers of trans fats begins with education and trusted information. With good and bad nutrition recommendations available at every turn, it is often overwhelming to sift through the noise and find accurate advice. Healthcare providers have the ethical responsibility not only to be informed about matters affecting public health but also to provide their patients with clear, accessible information to enable informed decisions. With trans fats, this includes nutritional counseling on trans fats, discussing the dangers they pose, and suggesting healthier alternatives, like healthy fats found in anti-inflammatory foods.

For many people, reading food labels can be daunting. Given the extensive focus through the years on calories, fat, carbohydrates, and sugars, many consumers are only aware of some of the content a nutrition facts label provides. Healthcare providers should educate patients on how to read food labels. For trans fats, it is important to understand the labeling regulations and to focus on words and terms to watch for, like partially hydrogenated oils.

Functional medicine practitioners are well-equipped to discuss trans fats with their patients. While trans fats are not healthy ingredients for anyone, utilizing functional medicine allows healthcare professionals to give patients advice on the best substitutes for trans fats for their individual health profiles. Tailoring treatment plans may include recommending certain healthier, anti-inflammatory fats to replace trans fats, ultimately promoting overall health and wellness. 

Alternatives to Trans Fats

Limiting the intake of trans fats and some saturated fats, and instead opting for healthier sources of unsaturated fats. Healthier unsaturated fats, such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, can be found in extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, nuts, seeds, and fatty fish. These healthier fats are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which help reduce inflammation and support overall health. They not only provide flavor and richness to dishes but also offer numerous health benefits, including improved heart health and reduced inflammation.

Some solid fats are healthier options as well. Instead of taking in partially hydrogenated oils in trans fats, consider choosing healthier natural solid fats like coconut oil. It can still be used in baking, frying, and other cooking to achieve similar texture and flavor in dishes.

Butter and ghee (which is clarified butter) can replace trans fats in cooking and baking. While they still do contain saturated fats, they are healthier options (as compared to trans fats) because they are not mechanically engineered and thus have lower levels of proinflammatory ingredients. Because they are high in saturated fats, both butter and ghee should still be enjoyed in moderation.

Lastly, don’t forget avocados. They are dense in healthy unsaturated fats, and brimming with healthy omega-3 fatty acids. The fat content and creaminess of avocados lend the oil to be used in dressings and marinades and the creaminess to replace heavy creams and sauces.

Advocating for Public Health Policy

In their commitment to service to the public, healthcare professionals play an integral role in advocating for public health policies that limit or eliminate trans fat consumption, promoting healthier dietary choices overall. It starts with increasing awareness about the serious health risks associated with trans fat consumption. This includes educating patients, lawmakers, regulatory agency stakeholders, and the general public about the detrimental effects of trans fats on many health outcomes. Increasing awareness builds public support for new and changed policies that eliminate or reduce trans fat consumption.

Healthcare professionals have the duty to advocate for and support stronger laws, regulations, and policies to change the ways foods are produced. Individuals only have access to the foods available to them, so these changes begin with farmers and large food manufacturers and they extend to supermarkets and other grocery retailers. Whether this involves supporting initiatives to restrict the use of partially hydrogenated oils in food products or even to ban them altogether, it would eliminate the public health risk that trans fats are known to impose. Advocacy starts with groundroots efforts of sharing public comments, publishing policy statements, and collaborating with influential stakeholders.

In addition to restricting or banning specifically trans fats, healthcare professionals should take a broader approach to promote healthier eating habits as a whole within their patients and their community. Offering free resources, such as healthy eating intensives, nutrition education programs, and cooking classes, empowers the general public with the tools they need to optimize their nutrition by making informed food choices.


Key Takeaways

Protecting public health from the dangers of trans fats should remain a worldwide priority. Healthcare professionals play a crucial role in educating patients about the dangers of consuming trans fats, advocating for policy and regulatory changes that create healthier food environments, and promoting overall healthy eating habits and public health. By providing personalized dietary advice, patients can be empowered to take charge of their own health and say no to food products that are detrimental to their health. 

The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplement or making any changes to your diet or exercise routine.
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