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Trans-Fat-Free Food: What's the Truth?

The skinny on labels, calories, and what trans fat means to your diet.

Trans Fat Substitutes continued...

Using heart-healthier monounsaturated or polyunsaturated oils, such as olive, canola, or corn oil, is a great option for some products, but doesn't work when you need a solid fat to make a food. Replacing trans fat with saturated fat is better, but not ideal.

"Trans fats are worse than any other fat, including butter or lard, so look for foods that use the least amount of trans fats," says Jacobson. "Even if it contains a little saturated fat, it is better than consuming the trans fat."

Adds Ward: "Tropical oils such as palm, palm kernel, and coconut may not contain trans fats, but they contain unhealthy saturated fats that are almost as bad for you as partially hydrogenated fats."

Trans Fats When You're Eating Out

But what about foods in restaurants, or from outside the U.S. where trans fat labeling may not be required? When restaurants and state fairs boast that their oils are trans-fat-free, some consumers may be misled into believing fried foods are good for them.

"Using trans-fat-free cooking oil to fry foods is certainly better," says Ward. "But the food is still fried, and fried food is high in fat and calories and generally not recommended for the heart or the waistline."

Wendy's, Taco Bell, Dunkin' Donuts, Baskin Robbins, Denny's, IHOP, KFC, Pizza Hut, and Starbucks are among the food companies that have replaced trans fats or are committed to doing so. Yet plenty of restaurants still use them.

"Avoiding fried foods and cakes, cookies, and pastries is the easiest way to reduce trans fat consumption when you eat out," says Jacobsen. 

You can also ask about the type of fat used for frying, baking, and in salad dressings. Even if the menu boasts that items are "cooked in vegetable oil," that doesn't necessarily mean they're trans- fat-free foods. They may contain some partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.

Beyond Trans Fats

While eliminating trans fats is important, it's only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to protecting your heart and health.

"Trans fat is getting lots of bad press but it is important to keep in mind the 'big' fat picture, which includes total fat, saturated fat, and a healthy lifestyle," says cardiologist Robert Eckel, MD.

"Limiting trans fats is … only one component of a healthy dietary pattern that includes eating a wide variety of nutritious foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; limiting total fats [and] saturated fats; getting regular physical activity; and being at a healthy weight," says Tufts University researcher Alice Lichtenstein,DSc. Eckel, past president of the AHA, adds not smoking to that healthy lifestyle list.

To help educate consumers about trans fats and other fats, the AHA has launched a "Face the Fats" campaign, enlisting the help of Eckel as well as The Food Network's Alton Brown, known for his scientific approach to cooking. Brown uses his knowledge of food to help consumers learn to make low-fat substitutions that are nutritious and still delicious.

"I look at recipes and see how I can make it healthier by reducing the amount or type of fat, using a replacement ingredient, or altering the cooking method," says Brown. "But sometimes, none of these work and the answer is to simply eat a smaller portion."

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Reviewed on February 23, 2009

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