The New York City Board of Health voted in December 2006 to ban the use of artificial trans fats in city restaurants. The ban will take effect by mid-2008. However, most use of trans fats in frying and in spreads must end sooner - by July 2007. Health officials also will require some restaurants to post calorie counts right on their menus. It's a bold move. The initial reaction has been mixed, but there is likely to be heated debate about the merits of this policy.
Trans fats are produced from liquid oils, such as vegetable oil, to form a more solid fat for cooking and baking. Trans fats are popular because of their taste and because they can extend the shelf life of foods. Pancake and hot chocolate mixes, crackers, pizza dough and French fries are examples of foods that commonly contain trans fats.
If your diet is high in trans fat, your LDL ("bad" cholesterol) may rise and your HDL (the "good" cholesterol) may fall. In addition, the blood may become "stickier," promoting blood clot formation. These changes may increase your risk of having a heart attack.
According to the Harvard School of Public Health, as many as 228,000 heart attacks and 100,000 related deaths might be avoided in this country each year simply by eliminating trans fats from the diet and using healthier (polyunsaturated) fats instead.
So why is banning trans fats controversial? Those who favor restricting trans fat emphasize the potential reduction in cardiovascular disease that could follow. There are many, healthier alternatives that could be used instead. As for taste, a recent survey in
Denmark found that people noticed no difference in the taste of their food since a trans fat ban took effect there earlier this year.
But those in the restaurant business wonder whether trans fat is a big enough health threat to warrant a ban. Chefs worry that their food will not taste as good. In fact, some fast food restaurants point to the results of taste tests and focus groups suggesting that taste is sacrificed when foods are prepared with healthier alternatives to trans fats. Finally, changing recipes can be expensive, especially for fast-food restaurants and large chains.
What Changes Can I Make Now?
- Learn more about how you can reduce the amount of trans fat in your diet:
- Read nutrition labels and choose foods that are low in trans fat. Restrict your intake to less than 2 grams per day, as recommended by newly developedguidelines from the American Heart Association.
- If you dine at fast food restaurants, ask to see the nutritional information for your favorite foods.
- Limit your intake of foods that commonly contain high amounts of trans fat such as crackers, cookies, pizza, French fries and donuts. The trans fat content of a single glazed donut can be 4 grams or more.
Other measures you can take to keep your heart healthy include the following:
- Don't smoke.
- Get your blood pressure checked. If it is high, talk to your doctor about ways to lower it.
- Have your blood sugar checked. If it is high, exercise and loss of excess weight can help you avoid diabetes (a major risk factor for heart disease).
- Have your cholesterol levels measured. This includes tests for HDL, LDL and total cholesterol. If your cholesterol levels are not ideal, talk to your doctor about diet, exercise and, if necessary, medications.
- Choose a balanced diet that emphasizes fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Trans fats are only one part of the diet. While it is a good idea to choose healthier fats, such as olive oil or canola oil, it's also important to maintain a healthy weight through exercise, portion control and attention to total calories.
What Can I Expect Looking to the Future?
As New York City restaurant owners "digest" this news, some have hinted that they will challenge the trans fat ban in court. If the ban goes forward, I hope researchers will be able to study its effects not only on the health of diners but also on the financial health of New York City restaurants. This information will help guide other cities that are considering similar restrictions.
There is no easy way to be sure people will make healthy food choices. However, it seems likely that trans fats' days are numbered. Only time will tell whether limiting trans fat actually improves public health.March 2007 update