Feb. 9, 2009 -- Yes, you know trans fat is bad for you. But it's a good bet that knowledge isn't doing you much good.
About four out of five Americans know trans fats are bad for health. But only one in five can name three foods high in trans fat, find University of Colorado researcher Robert H. Eckel, MD, and colleagues.
"The trans fat message is pretty well out there, but we need to wake up to the fact that the trans fats intake pattern for America and the Western world is still too high," Eckel tells WebMD. "And we are still eating too many saturated fats, too."
We're trying, but we still don't get it, says Michael L. Dansinger, director of obesity research for the Tufts University atherosclerosis research lab and nutrition advisor for The Biggest Loser television series.
"There is a lot of confusion about where the sources of fat are and the best way to identify unhealthy fats," Dansinger tells WebMD.
The good news is that the Eckel study, a nationally representative survey of 1,000 U.S. adults, shows we're getting the message about fats:
- 92% of Americans have heard of trans fat.
- 73% of Americans know trans fats increase the risk of heart disease.
- 77% of Americans know saturated fats increase the risk of heart disease.
The bad news is that most Americans have a fat chance of taking advantage of their fat knowledge:
- Only 21% of Americans can name three food sources of trans fat.
- Nearly half of Americans can't name even one trans fat food source.
- Only a third of Americans can name even one trans fat food without seeing a list.
Looking Out for Trans Fats, Blindsided by Saturated Fats
Fortunately, new laws insist that products made with trans fats (and/or partially hydrogenated oils) have to say so on their labels.
Unfortunately, that's as far as many people read, says Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and nutritional consultant to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"People are pressed for time. So they see 'Trans fats: zero' on the label and they say, 'Fine, I'll buy it,'" Bonci tells WebMD. "But a lot of those foods have replaced the trans fat with a saturated fat. Free does not equal healthy. It is this assumption that 'trans-fat free must be good' that does us in."
But as Eckel points out, saturated fats aren't a whole heck of a lot better. They can do a world of harm to your heart if not eaten in moderation. And when it comes to saturated fat, we tend not to be moderate.
"The health message is more than trans fats. But this message is ignored: 12.4% of our total calories come from saturated fats. That's twice what we should be eating," Eckel says.
Where to Find Trans Fats
Where are trans fats?
Here's a list of foods typically high in trans fats:
- French fries
- Pastries (also high in saturated fats)
- Hard margarine
- Vegetable shortening
- Cookies (also high in saturated fats)
While many restaurants and manufacturers have started making trans-fat-free versions of these foods, this still doesn't make them heart healthy.
Avoiding manufactured foods high in trans fats is essential, Eckel says, as we get plenty of trans fats from natural foods.
"Twenty percent of trans fat consumption comes from natural foods, not oils or solid spreads modified by the food industry to enhance shelf life or enhance palatability," he says. "And now we are avoiding trans fats in manufactured food products, if we eat beef or dairy we probably are consuming most of our trans fats through natural foods."
Here's a list of foods typically high in saturated fats:
- Fatty beef (also naturally contain some trans fat)
- Pastries (also high in trans fat)
- Cookies (also high in trans fat)
- Dairy products (also naturally contain some trans fat)
- Whole milk
How to Eat Fewer Fats
Want to eat fewer fats? Here's advice that really works:
- Don't deny yourself today only to binge tomorrow. Enjoy fatty foods in moderation.
- To be moderate, fill up on healthy foods.
"People are getting sick of this negative message of what not to have," Bonci says. "Let's focus instead on foods we love to eat."
When you're filling your plate, Bonci says, start with the foods you know are good for you.
"If half of the plate is red, yellow, orange, or green -- and it is not M&Ms -- that's cool," she says. "And if another third of the plate is lean plant or animal protein. And if the remainder of the plate is grain, that's not fat either. But even if you decide at that point to have french fries or a pastry -- well, there's not much more room on the plate, so you're not getting an overwhelming dose of fat."
If you want a doughnut, Bonci tells her football players, go buy a doughnut, not a box. Gotta have chips? Get a tiny bag, not a family-sized bag.
Not everyone has this much self-control, Dansinger says. He should know, as the people he advises on The Biggest Loser have serious self-control issues.
The answer for those of use who tend to be immoderate is "voluntary submission" to someone -- a trainer, for example, or a doctor -- who will hold our feet to the fire.
"If adherence to a plan is the key, the key to adherence is voluntary submission," Dansinger says. "I let my patients know there is a certain set of rules: keeping a food record, following a particular food strategy, and exercising. The principle of being accountable to an outside authority has been a key to my success."
The bottom line, Eckel says, is to enjoy good foods and to limit -- not deny ourselves -- consumption of foods that carry a risk.
"We emphasize the good side of the equation: Enjoy fruits and vegetables, whole grains, poultry, and fish," he says. "And if we enjoy fatty foods on certain occasions, I don't think we need to contest that."
The Eckel study appears in the February issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.