Trans fats have been in the news lately as our FDA is taking steps to get it out of our food. So what are trans fats and why should you care?
You can find lots of articles that discuss various aspects of trans fats. What is hard to find is exactly what is a trans fat and why is it dangerous.
Fats are basically long carbon chains with some oxygen attached in various places. The carbon atoms are mostly attached to other carbons with single bonds. Carbon atoms connected with single bonds are free to rotate around the bond sort of like a U-joint. In nature, if there is a double bond between two of the carbons, they fold in a particular way that is called a cis formation. Cis locks that portion of the chain, stopping the ability to rotate. Nature almost exclusively uses the cis formation.
Trans fats add double bonds to the carbon chain as well but form a kink in the chain that chemists call a trans formation. This trans formation is rare in nature. Another way to say this is is that trans fats are locked in an abnormally twisted configuration.
Because we don't find the trans type of kink in nature as a rule, bacteria, fungus as well as people don't have a good way to break them down. This is exciting to a biochemist because these fats don't go bad and have an amazing shelf life. When a food spoils it is because it is being broken down by micro organisms. Imagine you are a food manufacturer making something like snack cakes. You would certainly choose trans fats. People would most likely stock their nuclear fallout shelter with lots of trans fats items. Remember these have a great shelf life because bacteria and fungus don't know how to digest them which is remarkable when you think about it.
Since we can't properly digest trans fats, what happens to them after you enjoy that trans fat loaded candy bar or packaged cake that your taste buds thought was perfectly fine?
These fats are incorporated into cell membranes just like a good fat would be. Cell membrane health is critical because this is how your cell controls what is on the inside and what is kept on the outside. Think of the cell membrane as part of your security system. Trans fats interrupt the body's capability of regulating traffic across the membrane. And they keep doing it for about 3 months. So that packaged donut you ate yesterday causes problems for 90 more days.
If you chart heart disease from a public health point of view and overlay that with use of trans fats in our diet, you would see some surprising correlations. It has been pointed out that at the turn of the 20th Century, a doctor who wanted to observe a heart disease patient would probably have to travel because they wouldn't show up in their practice very often.
Today heart disease has taken a commanding position as the number one killer. Do trans fats play a role? Thousands of researchers think so and now with overwhelming evidence, the FDA is getting on board about 50 years too late.
Fish oils like EPA and DHA are good fats and you need them to make healthy membranes. I have included a couple of fish oil supplements you can use in place of eating mackerel and sardines every day.