# Monday, January 7, 2008

Trans Fats: What Exactly Are They?

The banning of trans fats has been big in the news for the past year. Schools and restaurants are no longer serving foods that contain trans fats. They have been linked to heart disease and other serious health risks. But what exactly are trans fats and how do they differ from the essential fats that we need in our diet?

Fat is an important factor in a healthy diet. Fat provides essential fatty acids and calories, and helps the body absorb Vitamins A, D and E.  Fats and oils are mostly made up of a combination of the four main types of fatty acids. However, most combinations usually have a higher proportion of one particular type of fatty acid. The four main types of fatty acids are:

Polyunsaturated fatty acids: found in many common vegetable oils such as soybean, corn and sunflower, as well as fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, smelt, herring and trout. Fish oils, flaxseed, sunflower seeds, soybeans and certain nuts such as walnuts also are high in this type of fat.

Monounsaturated fatty acids: found in oils such as olive, canola and high oleic sunflower oil. Also found in avocados and nuts such as cashews, pecans, almonds and peanuts.

Saturated fatty acids: found in animal fats such as pork and beef, dairy products such as butter and cheese, and coconut, palm and palm kernel oils.

Trans fatty acids: naturally found in small amounts in foods such as dairy, beef and lamb. Small amounts are also formed during the refining of liquid vegetable oils such as canola and soybean. Trans fats are created when manufacturers use a process called partial hydrogenation, which turns liquid oil into a semi-solid form, like shortening and margarine.

Food products containing a high amount of trans fats have been popular with manufacturers because of the longer shelf life in comparison of products made with the other fatty acids. They also play a large role in making the popular flavors and textures in many bakery products and snack foods. Trans fats are the reason for the "melt in your mouth" sensations of pastries.

So which fats are good and which are harmful to your health? Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids can actually lower your risk of heart disease. These are the fats that should be included in your daily diet for optimum health. Saturated and trans fatty acids raise your risk of heart disease. These raise blood levels of bad cholesterol and lower the blood levels of good cholesterol. Bad cholesterol increases the risk of heart disease, while good cholesterol lowers the risk.

Be aware of the types of fatty acids in your diet. Increase the amount of foods from the "good" fats groups, and lessen the amount of foods from the "bad" group. Optimal health relies on the food groups that contain good fats in order for the body to absorb essential vitamins, and to decrease the risk of heart disease and stroke.

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