The end of artificial fats?
Well, it’s big news. The United States Food and Drug Administration is moving to remove artificial trans fats from the American diet. Over the next three years, the main dietary source of trans fats in processed food is going to be almost entirely phased out. That source? Something known as partially hydrogenated oils (or PHOs) which are created by pumping vegetable oils with hydrogen and making them into solids or semi-solids. This won’t wipe out trans fats completely – they occur naturally in other edible oils at very low levels, but it is a major step towards dealing with what has become a serious health threat.
So what exactly are trans fats and why are they so bad for us? And what does all this American legislation mean for those of us in the UAE and elsewhere around the world?
What are trans fats?
Sometimes referred to as trans unsaturated fatty acids, they are a type of unsaturated fat that does not regularly occur in nature and is manufactured to extend shelf life and control flavour in food products.
We find them thanks (or not thanks) to PHOs which are present in our processed food. They’re used in the making of everything from margarine (introduced in the 1970s and the first time ‘trans fats’ really became known to consumers) to breads and biscuits and frosting and cakes and snack foods and fries and fried meats. Basically, all foods made with or fried in these partially hydrogenated oils are trans ‘fats foods. ’
So this use of trans fats had been going on relatively unregulated for decades. However, over the past fifteen or so years, studies have been conducted which demonstrate the dangers of using them in our everyday foods.
In 2002, a study concluded that there were strong links between intake of trans fats and increased levels of LDL cholesterol (yes, that’s the bad cholesterol). In 2006, FDA regulations for labelling forced food manufacturers to list the trans fats present in their products.
This gave consumers – at least those who bothered to look – some information they could use to control their daily intake. Skip forward a few years to 2013, and trans fats were finally labelled as unsafe – and from there it’s a short hop to 2015 and the start of a three-year phasing out of trans fats altogether
Trans fats and your body
What exactly do trans fats do to your body? Trans fats destroy your cholesterol levels. How is that for starters? They contribute to the build-up of plaque inside the arteries (atherosclerosis), clogging them, ultimately raising diabetes risk, pushing up blood pressure, and of course increasing chances of coronary heart disease.
As to why trans-fats damage our arteries with such viciousness, research strongly suggests it all has to do with the way they reduce the responsiveness of a key protein. Specifically, trans fats will transform growth factor (TGF)-beta, which is there to control growth and differentiation in cells.
And what about weight gain? Well, trans fats cause quick weight gain and an ugly distribution of body fat, especially noticeable in the abdominal area where it is most dangerous to carry that extra weight.
Trans fats in the UAE
Given the prominence of the Western-style diet and all its associated problems, this issue is highly relevant around the world. Regular readers won’t be surprised to hear this from me: Our Western diet is full of things we should be avoiding.
But of course it’s tough. Many people here in the UAE live a fast-paced lifestyle, often picking up food on the go. We do need to make healthier choices, though. Because whether it’s fast food or packaged food, what you’re eating is potentially full of trans fats. And let’s not forget that while many people regard Emirati and Gulf Arab food as a healthy alternative, there can also be plenty of trans fats present in those as well.
Different countries are tackling the problem in different ways. Denmark has led the way with strong regulatory measures in place for years, and other countries are now starting to catch up.
And the good news is that the UAE is in fact making strong moves in the right direction. In 2014, the Ministry of Health announced plans to create new standards for fast food and packaged food. It will do this in conjunction with the United Arab Emirates University and the International Food and Beverage Alliance. The aims include the reduction of trans fats in ingredients found in UAE food products.
Removing the poison from your diet
So we’re making some progress. But here’s the thing – and I can’t stress this enough – it’s up to you to make healthy choices. Temptation is everywhere and we are a long way off from making the Paleo Diet the law (although if I had my way…).
The best way to avoid them? Be aware. That means reading those labels when you’re in the supermarket, checking not just for ‘trans fats’ but also for ‘partially hydrogenated oil.’ As soon as you see it, put it right back on the shelf. These foods will make your brain release temporary happy chemicals (which is why we think these foods taste so amazing), but they will hurt your body real bad over the long-term.
There are lots of foods I tell my clients to avoid as much as they can, but when it comes to foods containing trans fats I tell them straight up that this is something you should never eat. They’ve been called ‘toxic’ by the World Health Organization. Seriously, how much more do we need to know?
Graham Simpson, MD is Chief Medical Officer and Founder of Intelligent Health, a preventive medical centre located in Jumeirah. Dubai. He graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand Medical School in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is board certified in Internal Medicine and Emergency Medicine. As a founding member of the American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA) Dr Simpson is also a licensed homeopath.