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?

Comments

While in graduate school conducting research on the 5 A Day campaign to encourage Americans to consume at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day (in Canada, it is “10 a day”!), a nutritionist with whom I worked said something that I will never forget: “Try to stay as close to nature as possible.” What she meant was try to eat foods as close to their natural state as possible. The ideal example is an orange that you can simply pluck from a tree and eat it immediately. There are no steps in between. I think this is a useful general rule of thumb for healthy nutrition. In short, try to eliminate the number of steps it takes for a food to get from its source to your mouth—this includes how much the food will travel, how many people will touch that food, and of course, how many chemicals are added to “do something” to the food. I think this concept is fueling the “farm to table” or “farm to fork” movements, as well as pushes to buy locally and what is in season. As consumers, we have the power to vote with our dollars. The more we buy/demand foods as close to their natural state, the more options will be available, and the costs will eventually drop as well.

Great comment, Everly! and nicely put! That is very similar to the philosophy of the nutrition course that I took through LEAN. One of the things that I have seen through my work on the Media Smart Youth program is how unfortunate it is that in lower income areas it's often more difficult and more expensive to find food in the more natural state. We frequently heard from grantees that a piece of fresh fruit was much more expensive than a bag of chips so it was difficult for families to afford to live by the concept of eating food in its natural state. As we live in a world where convenience is King, we will need to figure out how to make whole, natural foods as convenience and affordable as junk.

Hi Kim, Your blog was really educational for me. Thanks for sharing this information about the risks of trans fats and providing steps for me to follow to eliminate them from items I purchase at the grocery store. Do you have any tips on how to reduce trans fats from the meals I order when eating out at restaurants?

Kim Barnes - Great question! In the store, it's easy as you can just read the label. But at restaurants it's harder because you really don't know how it's prepared. California banned restaurants cooking with Transfats in 2008, so one simply solution is to move to California :) Just kidding...

I tend to stick with places that use whole ingredients (like Seasons 52). In general, more expensive restaurants are likely using better ingredients (e.g. olive oil is better than margarine or butter). General rule of thumb is the thinner oils are better than the thicker stuff (not perfect, but general rule). And just ask a lot of questions. It's not a perfect science, but just moving toward making better choices when you can helps.

Hi Kim, We share the same primary care physician, so that's great news to learn that the L.E.A.N weight loss program is effective. I am really interested in wellness as a reachable public health goal, ideally achieved by the simplest, least expensive, and most natural means possible. As for my two cents, I think it helps to consciously limit (if not eliminate) extra sodium, sugar, most carbohydrates including alcohol, and reduce wheat gluten, in particular. The NIH DASH Diet has a lot of good recipes, as does the Mediterranean Diet. Unfortunately it is impossible to safely lose weight without making significant diet and lifestyle changes, but it is a little easier if one can first commit to the idea of balance. This adjustment can be as simple as conscientiously eating much less food, drinking more water, and increasing physical activities for several days after periods of indulgence, and indulging with a few extra calories after periods of exercise and high-calorie abstinence.

Hi Stacy, Thanks for taking the time to write such a thoughtful post. All great tips! I'll check out the NIH DASH diet and Medeterranian. LEAN is also big on eliminating artificial sugars and high fructose corn syrup and eating all whole products (grains). I find when I eliminate this stuff, my cravings reduce considerably. But once I let them back in, my cravings return. Thanks again for your thoughtful post, and yes, I love Dr. Marshall! :)

Hi Kim, Thanks so much for this story. I try to be pretty careful about what I feed my kids, but this was the first time I'd heard about the danger hydrogenated oils pose. You are absolutely right -- if they are meant to artificially keep foods from spoiling, what bad things might they be doing to our bodies? I'll be looking forward to the decision from FDA. I hope its a good one, and not too influenced by lobbyists!

Nate -- Thanks for posting! I'll write an update after the decision. I hope the FDA follows the science and not the lobby :)

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