Most people have heard the health warnings about trans fats. They raise LDL (artery-clogging) cholesterol and lower HDL (good) cholesterol, increasing the risk for heart disease and stroke. Trans fats are easier to spot now that the amount is listed on the Nutrition Facts Panel of food labels. However, it is still important to scan the ingredients list for sources of trans fats (hidden as partially hydrogenated oils) because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows “0 trans fat” claims on packaging even if the product contains up to 0.5 grams per serving.
While this may not seem like a big deal, the daily recommended amount of trans fat is “as low as possible” because of its effect on cholesterol levels. In other words, if you can help it, don’t eat trans fat. If you eat several servings a day from products claiming “0 trans fat,” you’re likely eating more of this unhealthy fat than you think.
Trans fats can be found in many foods, including stick margarine, shortening, fried foods, microwave popcorn, and baked goods such as cookies, crackers and pastries. They also occur naturally in small amounts in beef, pork, lamb, dairy and butter. But don’t be as concerned about these naturally occurring trans fats. It turns out they don’t seem to have the same damaging health effects as their artificial counterparts. Plus, the small amount of trans fat in these foods comes naturally packaged with other beneficial nutrients.
Still, this doesn’t give you free rein to devour a steak every night. Remember, steak and other foods in this group provide far more saturated fat than trans fat. The recommendation is to limit saturated fat intake to 7%–10% of daily calories to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
In short, focus on replacing dietary sources of manufactured trans fats, as well as saturated fats, with healthier poly- and monounsaturated fats. These heart-healthy fats can be found in foods such as olive and canola oil, trans fat–free spreads, oily fish, nuts and seeds.