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Diabetes and trans fats: understanding the dangers

Trans-fatty acids make pie crusts flaky, potato chips crisp and even low-fat cookies chewy. Each of these tasty food items have common elements--cooking oils, margarine and shortening. During food processing, these items are hydrogenated, basically turning unsaturated vegetable oils into a semi- or solid state. Partially hydrogenated and hydrogenated fats are commonly used in processed food products because they are typically cheaper and improve the shelf life of products.

While trans fats can help keep items on supermarket shelves for a longer period of time, they can also shorten your life.

The dangers of trans fat

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), trans fats have been shown to increase blood cholesterol levels and, ultimately, lead to the development of heart disease. A 2006 New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) study found that the consumption of trans fats "results in considerable potential harm but no apparent benefit." Once the dangers of trans fats were exposed, the Food and Drug Administration jumped into action. In 2006, the FDA required trans fats to be listed on nutrition labels.

However, while you can check the trans fats in your local grocery market, it is more difficult to do so at your local fast food establishment. Fast food items are typically high in trans fat and fast food restaurants are under no obligation to reveal that information to consumers.

5 tips for avoiding trans fats

The AHA recommends trans fats account for less than 1 percent of your daily calorie intake. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to steer clear of the killer fat in the supermarket aisle and on the restaurant menu.

  1. Read the nutrition label. Because the FDA requires food producers to identify any trans fats on the nutrition label, you can now be a savvy shopper. Choose foods with good fats such as mono- and polyunsaturated fat or omega-three fatty acids.
  2. Know your ingredients. To avoid trans fats altogether, read the ingredients list and put back any foods with partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated fat. Be aware of the common trans-fat-containing foods and avoid them. Processed snack foods like crackers and chips, baked goods, stick margarine, shortening and fast food items such as French fries and donuts are often loaded with trans fat.
  3. Avoid deep-fried foods. Restaurant menus may not offer the same level of information, but you can still order smart. Ask a server, chef or restaurant manager to make sure your order is free of trans fats.
  4. Switch out oils. If possible, the FDA recommends you use healthy oils such as corn oil, soybean oil, olive oil or sunflower oil.
  5. Eat more fish. Typically speaking, fish have lower levels of saturated fat than most meats.

Trans fats pose a health risk for anyone, whether they have diabetes or not. But if you already have or are at risk of developing diabetes, it's crucial to protect yourself. Reduce your overall fat intake and favor the good fats when you indulge--your body will thank you.

About Clare Kaufman

Dr. Clare Kaufman is a freelance writer who covers business and education topics.

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