Health With a Capital H

Eliminating Trans Fats: A Step in the Right Direction

December 2, 2013

By Kim Callinan, General Manager and Senior Vice President, Health Communications

Eliminating Trans Fats: A Step in the Right Direction

With Thanksgiving (one of our biggest food holidays just behind us), I thought it would be an appropriate time to comment on the Food and Drug Administration’s recent move toward a ban on trans fats. Personally, I’ve had a positive experience with eliminating trans fats from my diet. Three years ago, I weighed 80 pounds more than I do today. After going on a cruise and seeing my obese father unable to walk to the dining hall and my 10-year-old son gorge himself on food, I decided that I needed to take immediate action. As a public health professional, I knew the best way to help my son and reverse the cycle of obesity was to help myself first and get in control of my own health and eating. Not an easy task, but one I was determined to tackle.

The story of how I lost 80 pounds is a long one, and different strategies helped me along the way. One important step for me was enrolling in a women’s wellness and weight program through my primary care physician, Dr. Angela Marshall of Women’s Comprehensive Care. Dr. Marshall co-led the program with two health educators certified in the Dr. Sears L.E.A.N program (Lifestyle, Exercise, Attitude, and Nutrition). In the L.E.A.N. program, I learned about the negative impact of trans fats on one’s health.

What are trans fats?

This WebMD article does a nice job of explaining trans fats simply. In short, trans fats are added into food products in order to improve taste and texture, and increase shelf life. So, think about it. If the item is designed to increase shelf life, how long is it going to remain in your body? And do you think you really want it there? Scientific studies have been pretty clear; trans fats are not good for you. They get stuck in your arteries and increase your risk for heart disease.

At L.E.A.N. one evening, we received an assignment: Go home and rid our house of all products containing trans fats. We learned not to rely on the product label saying “no trans fats,” we actually had to read the ingredients. If any included the words “partially hydrogenated” or “hydrogenated” that meant trans fats, and we needed to toss them out. A host of other items—high fructose corn syrup and artificial sugars for example—were also headed for the trash.

At home, I took out a big black garbage bag—the kind that you use for the lawn—and started tossing. By the time I was done going through my cabinets, I had almost no food left. My husband came home annoyed that I was wasting food. But, after my persuasive argument about how trans fats put the equivalent of tar in our arteries, he acquiesced.

From that point, my mission was to educate—my husband, my parents, my friends, and anybody who would listen—about trans fats and other fake foods. I felt so passionate about making these changes that I went on to become a certified L.E.A.N coach myself.

My kids learned how to read a nutrition label, and I heard stories from their friend’s parents about how my child wouldn’t eat a snack because it had “some type of a bad oil in it.” I smiled knowingly.

Our shopping trips became scavenger hunts. I’d say, “Find me a box of graham crackers without hydrogenated oils in it.” And the kids would go to the store shelf and find the requested item. It was time consuming and expensive. However, once we identified new brands for our staple foods, we were able to shop more expeditiously.

What was the outcome for me and my family?

My son’s Body Mass Index (BMI) is now normal. And, I already told you I’m 80 pounds lighter. (I still have 30 more to go, but it’s about progress, not perfection.) The move away from trans fats was only one of the many changes my family made in our lifestyle. Would it be accurate to say that the removal of trans fats from our diet resulted in weight loss? I am very confident that it helped. Since the day I started my lifestyle changes, I have periods of time where I’m a zealot about what I put in my body. Other times, when I get busy and stressed, I’m a bit more lax, too lax, in fact. What I find is that for both my son and me, when we eat foods with trans fats, we tend to gain weight. Why? Because they don’t fill us up. We eat the food, and it’s as if we’ve eaten air. We are hungry right away, and we eat more and more and more. When we replace a trans fatty food with a food of equal calories but without trans fats, we tend to be more satisfied. Incidentally, the same is true about eating a food with high-fructose corn syrup in it. So if you are looking to get rid of fake foods from your diet, try omitting trans fats and high fructose corn syrup.

What exactly is the FDA's decision?

The FDA has determined (in preliminary findings) that partially hydrogenated oils are no longer GRAS (generally recognizable as safe) for use in food. GRAS foods are foods that were in use prior to 1958 when an amendment to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act made the FDA responsible for approving all food additives. As a part of that amendment, any additive already in existence was deemed to be “generally recognizable as safe” and could, therefore, remain in foods. Trans fats are one of many examples of a GRAS item.

The recent FDA ruling indicates that after the 60-day comment period, the FDA will review all the evidence. If the FDA makes the final determination that partially hydrogenated oils are not safe, they will be banned from foods in the United States. Incidentally, they are already banned from many other countries.

Why does this matter?

Personally, this potential FDA ban on trans fats helps me. As a person who struggles with her weight and who spent the past few years hunting to avoid trans fats, I am hopeful that in short order I will be able to pick up a product and know that trans fats are not included. I will no longer have to worry about whether my food has fake fats that are going to stick to my arteries.

Professionally, it’s even better news. To date, public health efforts to remove trans fats primarily relied on interventions designed at the interpersonal level. In other words, by using a health belief or similar model, our goal was to change individual perceptions of the threats posed by trans fats, the benefits of avoiding trans fats, and the factors that influence the decision to act on this information. This is a slow, arduous process that results in behavior change only some of the time. An FDA ban on trans fats is an intervention on a societal level, removing trans fats from products and, therefore, from people’s diets. In short, we are no longer relying on education to change behavior. We are allowing a policy intervention to mandate change. As a social marketer, I, of course, believe that public education is a critical intervention. However, I also recognize that it is not the only effective intervention and oftentimes it’s more effective if coupled with other interventions.

What else should we be doing?

As public health professionals, we need to continue to explore societal level interventions to reverse the obesity epidemic. After all, the obesity epidemic was born out of societal changes— the move from active careers to sedentary ones, the building of automatic transportation, and the increased reliance on packaged goods. For us to tackle the obesity epidemic, we need to look at societal level interventions that reverse this trend. Education alone is not enough. The removal of trans fats from our diet is a step in the right direction. Perhaps high fructose corn syrup could be next?

More importantly, however, is for us to think creatively about whether there are other trends at a societal or at least a community level that could help reverse the obesity epidemic. More physical education? Improved school breakfasts and lunches? Walkable communities? Higher taxes on gas? What ideas do you have?