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Trans Fats And The French Paradox

Why We Should Not Forget How Deadly Trans Fats Are

Dr. Padma Garvey/The Plant-Based Doctor Mom

Trans Fats And The French Paradox 

 The federal government has mandated that almost all trans fats should be eliminated from the American diet by 2018. The restriction on trans fats started more than a decade ago.   I am hoping that by discussing the science here, thoroughly, people will know the facts in case restrictions are suddenly lifted. Keep in mind that under the new guidelines, manufacturers can still claim that a product has zero trans fats so long as there is less than 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving. Since you want to keep your intake of trans fats to less than 2 grams per day and ideally to zero per day, you need to read the ingredients and the nutrition label carefully.  If a product has any trans fats in it then by law it must be listed on the nutrition label.   Trans fats are also called hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil. If you see these terms listed in the ingredients then the product has trans fats.

Trans fats are worse than saturated fats in causing heart disease.  Think of them as MONSTER FATS.  They became popular around the 1940s because they can be made from cheap vegetables oils that are altered from liquids to a solid fat. They make foods taste creamier, buttery, fattier, and crispier than when butter or regular oil is used. This is great for mass marketing and distribution of processed food.  It fit in nicely with the growing American appetite for fast food and processed food starting after World War II.

   As early as the 1930s, US scientists realized that people from Japan and certain parts of the Mediterranean region had much lower rates of heart disease than people from Scandanavia or America.  They discovered that the total fat consumption in these healthy regions was much lower than that in Scandanavia or America.  Moreover, the type of fat these people ate was unsaturated fat like olive oil whereas Americans tended to eat saturated fat like lard and butter.  At the same time, scientists learned that the artery-clogging material in stroke and heart attack victims was comprised of saturated fat and cholesterol.  Therefore, they deduced that restricting saturated fat and cholesterol intake would lead to a decrease in heart attacks and strokes.   Unfortunately, scientists did not emphasize that even unsaturated oil consumption should be moderate since too many calories just get converted to saturated fat by our bodies.

 Guidelines came out encouraging Americans to eat less cholesterol and saturated fat, hoping that this would decrease heart disease and strokes. However, under the radar, the use of trans fats took off around the same time.  After all, they came from “good” unsaturated fats.  They were just altered a little to make them taste like saturated fats.  Win win…..right?  Americans starting consuming foods with low or no saturated fat hoping for heart health.  Unbeknownst to many, Americans started consuming massive amounts of trans fats which were used in all processed and fast foods.  Not surprisingly, there was no change in heart attacks and strokes and so people began to question whether saturated fats and cholesterol were really as bad as scientists had told them.  This is why we started to see a revolving door of newspaper articles on butter being bad then good and then bad again.  As scientists began to learn how deadly trans fats were, it became clear what was going on.  While saturated fat in processed foods may have gone down, it was replaced by an even deadlier fat, the trans fat.  So yes saturated fats and cholesterol are bad for the heart, and trans fats are even worse.

The French Paradox refers to the finding that the French consume more saturated fat than the average American and have a lower rate of heart disease than Americans.  Truth be told it is really not such a mystery. The French eat very little processed food and therefore have significantly less trans fat intake than Americans.  Also their portion sizes are much smaller.  Just look at the Ben and Jerrys European single serving size.  The French manage to consume much more fruits, vegetables, and plant fiber than Americans.  And finally, while the French have lower rates of heart disease than Americans, their rates are still much higher than the Japanese.  So the advice that you should stick to an unprocessed, low-fat, whole grain, plant-based diet still holds true.

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