All fats are not created equal. Some fats, eaten in moderation, are good for us. Unfortunately, that is not the case with trans fatty acids, which abound in foods that many of us eat every day.
Trans fatty acids, usually abbreviated as "trans fats," increase the risk of heart disease more than saturated fats, which once were thought to be the worst kind. Saturated fats found in butter, cheese, beef, coconut and palm oil raise total cholesterol levels, but trans fats go a couple steps further.
They not only raise overall cholesterol levels, but they also decrease high-density lipoprotein, or HDL (the "good" cholesterol that helps protect against heart disease) and increase low-density lipoprotein or LDL (known as the "bad" cholesterol).
With time, trans fats can clog the pipes that feed the heart and brain, which ultimately can lead to a heart attack or stroke. As far back as 1994, a national report estimated that consumption of trans fats led to about 30,000 premature coronary heart disease deaths annually in our country.
Also called hydrogenated fats, trans fats are artificially processed from liquid oil. The heating method used to make trans fats causes them to remain solid when stored at room temperature. That may sound like a modern development, but partially hydrogenated fats such as shortening and margarine have been produced for more than 100 years.
Almost as soon as trans fats were invented, food manufacturers started putting them in packaged foods to improve taste and texture and allow for a longer shelf-life in stores. For example, Oreos can stay crispy for years, partly because of the hydrogenated fats they contain. Trans fats are also found in cereals, candies, granola bars, salad dressing and crackers -- even healthy-sounding ones such as Wheat Thins.
Recently, the Food and Drug Administration announced that beginning in January 2006, the presence of trans fatty acids in manufactured food products must be stated on the labels for consumers. Although that is about a year away, the FDA is making it a priority to notify consumers about the potential dangers of trans fats in the meantime.
Until 2006, we can become more educated and make wiser food choices for ourselves and our children. Children at ages 3 and 4 who start eating a regular diet of fast food, sugary breakfast treats, commercially prepared chicken nuggets, candy and cookies can expect to increase their risk of heart disease earlier than those who are eating foods without trans fats.
But there are steps parents can take to reduce trans fats in their children's diets:
n Model healthy eating behaviors and make healthy choices available.
n Learn how to identify foods that are high in fat and contain trans fats.
n Learn the categories of foods that are likely to have trans fats.
n Be a smart shopper.
n Cut down on fast foods such as french fries and read labels on the prepared foods. Watch especially for the terms "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated."
Parents can promote healthy eating habits for their children at an early stage of life. The gift of future health is more important than any toy or treat.
-- Mindy Fontaine is interim public relations
assistant at Yampa Valley Medical Center.