Trans Fat Facts for Dieters

What you need to know about trans fats if you're trying to lose weight

trans fat sources
Food and Drug Administration

You've probably heard health experts talk about the dangers of trans fats in food. Artificial trans fats are partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) that are are often found in processed foods. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, "trans fat intake has been linked to an increased risk of coronary heart disease by contributing to the buildup of plaque inside the arteries that may cause a heart attack."  For this reason, the Centers for Disease Control recommends that we keep our trans fat intake as low as possible.

But what if your primary health goal is weight loss not heart disease? Should you ignore the warnings about trans fat?  Absolutely not. There are three reasons why.

Trans Fat and Weight Loss

There are three important reasons that dieters need to be especially careful about artificial trans fats in their food.

  • Low-fat or fat-free foods may contain trans fat. Dieters often look for low-fat or fat-free versions of their favorite foods in the grocery store. You might think that you're also avoiding trans fat by eating these foods. But just because a product is low in fat or advertised as fat-free doesn't mean that it doesn't contain trans fat. Fat-free coffee creamer is a perfect example. Some brands advertise that their product is fat-free on the front of the label, but when you read the ingredients list on the back of the label, you'll see partially hydrogenated oil listed as a primary ingredient. 
  • Foods that contain trans fat are often the worst foods for weight loss. Partially hydrogenated oils are liquid oils that are altered by food manufactures to stay solid at room temperature. This helps improve flavor and helps packaged foods last longer. You'll often find trans fats in processed foods like crackers, baked goods and even microwave popcorn. So what's unique about these foods? They are the worst foods for people who are trying to lose weight. Not only are these foods the foods that we are most tempted to overeat, but they are also foods that are high in calories and low in nutritional value.
  • You need fat for weight loss, but not trans fat. You've probably heard diet experts talk about the importance of including some fat in your weight loss plan. Your body needs fat to carry out important cellular functions. But the kind of fat matters. Fat that is found naturally in plant-based foods, like the monounsaturated fat found in nuts or avocados, will help your body get and stay healthy. Trans fat doesn't provide the same benefits.

How to Find Trans Fat in Your Food

According to the FDA, you'll often find trans fat in these types of food:

  • crackers, cookies, cakes, frozen pies and other baked goods
  • snack foods (such as some microwave popcorn)
  • stick margarines
  • coffee creamers
  • refrigerated dough products (such as biscuits and cinnamon rolls)
  • ready-to-use frostings

To find out if your food contains trans fat, you can check the nutrition label. There is a special line below the fat grams where the grams of trans fat is indicated. But if the number of trans fat grams is zero, be careful.  According to the FDA, "companies can make that claim if the food contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving."  Since we often eat more than a single serving of popular foods (think popcorn or coffee creamer) you may be consuming trans fat without knowing it.

The best way to find trans fat in foods is to check the ingredients list. If you see if that  a partially hydrogenated oil included in the ingredients, then the product contains some amount of trans fat.

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