A Little Of What You Fancy Sometimes Does You No Good!

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Trans Fats

Life is rarely a black and white affair, and one of the requirements of a job working with people is the ability to deal with shades of grey most of the time. The answer to most questions I get asked is ‘it depends’, the only variations being on what and to what extent, which can make things much better or much worse, depending (see?) on the situation. Is my slightly high cholesterol dangerous? It depends – if you are young and otherwise healthy then probably not, if you are older with multiple health problems then it may be an issue. Is my back pain anything to worry about? (I assume you know the answer by now, although it depends on different things) Which painkillers would you recommend? (No change there then…………….)

For that reason I tend to take an ‘all things in moderation’ approach to life – we could all do with eating more healthily/shifting those few pounds/exercising more, but there has to be a balance somewhere, and finding it- and losing it from time to time – is all part of the fun. There are some big things that we should definitely all avoid though, the most obvious of these being smoking.

The same principle applies when thinking about what we eat. Does it matter if I eat chocolate? Well, if you eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, drink your 2 litres of water, stick to lean meat and oily fish, get plenty of fibre and not too much alcohol, then a few bites of your favourite treat now and again seems very appropriate and possibly even good for you. On the other hand, if you spend your days chomping you way through mainly junk food and by ‘chocolate’ you mean huge slabs of sugary rubbish every day then yes, it does matter!

Which brings me to the ‘smoking’ of the food world, industrially produced trans fats. They are deemed to be so unhealthy that in some parts of the world they have been banned altogether due to concerns regarding the effect they are having on heart disease in particular, and the UK Faculty of Public Health and Royal Society for Public Health recently suggested that they should also be eliminated from the UK diet also. This is because it has been shown that consumption of artificial trans fats has the strongest association with heart disease of any of the major nutrients, stronger than saturated fat (which has had some good press recently) and there is no ‘safe’ level to eat so that even small quantities are a bad idea.

Artificial trans fats were developed with apparently good intentions – they are made from vegetable oil and are therefore much cheaper than the animal fat equivalents, and they give foods a longer shelf life; few would argue against the merits of cheaper, longer lasting foods if everything else was equal. Unfortunately however, things are far from equal as trans fats have been shown to decrease HDL cholesterol levels (the good stuff) and increase LDL, triglycerides and total cholesterol (the not so good ones) along with increasing the chances of developing obesity, diabetes and ultimately heart disease. It is estimated that if measures were put in place to drastically reduce the presence of trans fats in our diet – not even eliminating them altogether – then 7000 lives could be saved annually in England alone.

So given all of this, I hope most readers would be very keen to start avoiding artificial trans fats, and on this subject I have good and bad news. The good news is that trans fats are easy enough to spot, the bad news is that they are largely found in ‘treat’ foods, mainly baked goods (commercially produced cakes, biscuits etc), deep fried packaged foods, packaged snacks, ice creams, sweets and margarines. And more worryingly, some breakfast cereals. Most of the relevant products do not advertise ‘trans fats’ in the same way as total fat and saturated fat contents which are listed on the majority of food labels these days, but the presence of trans fats in products is obvious from the list of ingredients if you know what to look for.

Trans fats are found in hydrogenated vegetable oil, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, vegetable shortening and margarine, so if you see any of these in the list of ingredients then you can be fairly sure that the product contains trans fats. There are trans fats that occur in our food naturally, mainly in red meat, but as theses are naturally occurring rather than industrially produced they do not have the same associated health risks.

Essentially, if you are concerned about eating trans fats then you can void them by not buying the products that contain them, but the good news is that if you want to eat cakes, biscuits and other snacks etc then any that you make yourself will not have the same associated problems as the pre-packaged varieties. There are other health related reasons why these foods till may not be a great idea, but that is another article altogether! It seems as though artificial trans fats may be eliminated from food production in the UK soon enough anyway so it will no longer be an issue.

So we have yet another reason to dust off those aprons, get in the kitchen and get baking! With very few exceptions, and given moderation and balance etc, it is generally true that if you make something from scratch yourself rather than buying a highly processed imitation that was synthesised in a factory then on the whole it won’t do you much harm.

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