In recent times, trans fats have earned the reputation of being THE VILLAINS of the piece, the really BAD guys, to be avoided at all costs.
Trans fats are artificially created fats. Basically, liquid vegetable oil (an otherwise healthy monounsaturated fat) is packed with hydrogen atoms and converted into a solid, which we call trans fat. This form of fat is ideal for the food and baking industry to use because of its long shelf life, high melting point and smooth, creamy texture. Trans fats are what make commercially prepared cakes, cookies and chips taste as nice as they do.
In India there has always been this long standing debate on the health benefits of vegetable oils, over saturated fats like butter or ghee and trans fats like vanaspati. In a choice between the three, vegetable fats definitely score over the other two, as the best form of fat intake. While, saturated fats have been found to elevate the total cholesterol and LDL (low-density lipoprotein) level; trans fats not only elevate LDL levels, but also those of triglycerides. Even worse they reduce the level of HDL (high-density lipoprotein), what is commonly referred to as ‘good cholesterol’, leaving a person extremely vulnerable to heart disease,
Right now, I can hear you saying, ‘whoa hang on a moment, what on earth do all these high sounding medical terms mean’? Maybe I should explain right?
Let’s start with Cholesterol?
This is quite simply, a fat that is made by the liver. Cholesterol is also present in several foods, such as, red meat and dairy. Cholesterol is required by almost all the cells of the body and is actually one of the good guys. It’s only when an excess of cholesterol is present in the body that it starts creating problems. Then we come to the lipoproteins. As the name suggests, these are a combination of fat and protein. Their function is to transport fats around the body in the blood. There are three types of lipoproteins:
Low Density Lipoprotein or LDL, part of the villain troupe, since it carries cholesterol from the liver to the cells. If too much cholesterol is carried to the cells it cases a harmful build up, which results in the narrowing of the arteries (atherosclerosis) ultimately leading to heart disease.
High Density Lipoproteins or HDL is the good guy. It transports Cholesterol from the cells to the liver, to be broken down and eliminated. Thus a high level of HDL in your blood indicates a low propensity for heart disease.
Triglycerides are the form in which most fat exists in food, as well as in the body. Calories ingested in a meal and not used immediately by tissues for energy, are converted to triglycerides and transported to fat cells to be stored. These are an excellent source of fuel for the body when there are food shortages. On the other hand, in these days of food excesses, the level of triglycerides in the blood can very easily go above healthy levels, again leading to an increased risk of heart disease or one of the other lifestyle diseases.
Defeating the Villain
Now that we have demystified those impossible tongue twisters, let’s get back to the original villain, trans fats.These baddies have earned themselves such a bad reputation, that their recommended safe intake has been limited to less than 1 percent of the total calorie intake. In other words, avoid them completely. In the USA it is mandatory to mention the use of trans fats on the food label. In India we do not have such stringent regulations yet, and therefore you need to pay careful attention to the ingredient list on the food label. If the words ‘Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil’ or ‘Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil’ are anywhere near the top of the ingredient list, this is a food to be avoided at all costs.
Ultimately, it always boils down to the same things doesn’t’ it? Fast foods, confectionery and fried snacks are the enemy. Treat yourself with very small portions of them once in ten days or so. Everyday food needs to be home cooked and balanced meals, made of unprocessed or semi processed cereals and lentils, cooked in as little oil as possible. Fresh fruit and raw vegetables make for perfect snacks (after thorough washing). Make sure that these good foods become a part of your daily life. After all when we don’t let the bad guys win in Bollywood, why should we let them win at home?
About the Author:
Sunitha Srinivasan is a Lifestyle Consultant and Resistance Trainer. She has qualified with the National Association for Fitness Certification, Arizona, USA. She conducts workshops on wellness that she calls ‘A Celebration of Life’, counsels on the management of lifestyle diseases and writes for leading journals and magazines.
She can be contacted at email@example.com
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