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Be A Trans-Fat Detective

Get to the bottom of how much of the hidden, harmful fats lurk in your food
By
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

When you think of the "bad fats" -- the ones that can hurt your health -- you probably think of the saturated variety. They are the ones that can raise your levels of bad cholesterol, or LDL, as well as your risks of developing serious conditions like heart disease.

Well, you should know that saturated fats have some company in this department: the trans fats.

The Bigger Bad Boy

Health-wise, trans fats strike with a double whammy. They too can raise your levels of bad cholesterol, but they also can decrease your HDL, or "good" cholesterol. Together, these two effects are primary risks of developing heart disease, and they are a reason why many experts consider trans fats a bigger bad boy than saturated fat.

What are you supposed to do? For starters, lower the amounts of saturated and trans fats in your daily diet. You can do it by choosing reduced-fat foods, like lower-fat dairy and leaner cuts of beef. (They contain less total fat, less saturated fat, and less trans fats.) Reduced-fat crackers and microwave popping corn will contain less total fat, less saturated fat, and less trans fat. You get the picture.

And, it may not be a popular notion, but making your own meals -- yes, homemade ones -- really help you control how much fat you eat. You get to choose the type and amount of fat in each recipe you prepare. If you make pie crust, biscuits, or waffles, use canola oil instead of shortening and use less cooking fat, in general, whenever possible. It's those smart substitutions that help a lot.

Where Trans Fats Lurk

I keep mentioning all these terms like unsaturated, saturated, and trans fats. When you think about types of fats, remember that a lot has to do with the amount of hydrogen in each type of fat molecule.

When the molecules are all full of hydrogen -- or are saturated with it, the fat tends to be solid at room temperature. The monounsaturated fats have one double bond in their carbon chain and polyunsaturated fats have more than one double bond, and both are better for your health than saturated fats and trans fats.

But trans fats make things a bit more complicated. They get their name from their distinct chemical structure. They occur naturally in small amounts in meat and dairy products. But they can be found in higher quantities in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils which are primarily used in shortening, some margarines and processed foods .

Remember about that hydrogen. When food manufacturers need a more stable, solid form of oil to make their products, they'll bubble hydrogen gas through vegetable oil. The process actually changes the chemical structure of the fat, turning some of it into trans fats. The oil doesn't take up all the hydrogen to become fully saturated, yet it does become a harmful type of fat.

Trans fats are lurking in all commercially made food products containing partially hydrogenated oils or shortening. They are also hiding in frying fats used by many fast food joints. (A 1998 Dutch study estimated that in the frying fat fast food chains use, a third of it is made up of trans fats.)

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