Trans-fats

For the first time in its history, the World Health Organisation has asked that countries get together and completely banish a specific ingredient from the food chain by 2023. This ingredient is trans-fats. Denmark has already done so but other countries have been very slow to follow suit. Indeed, in most countries, particularly Asia, Africa and the Middle East, trans-fats are still commonly used, both in the home and by street vendors, for frying and baking.

In the western nations, although promises have been made and legislation has even been passed in the USA, the use of trans-fats is still rampant and will be for years to come. Remember, these fats are very important to the processed food industry so they will try every trick in the book to convince us they are complying while, in reality, doing everything but.

What are trans-fats?
So what exactly are these trans-fats? Well, there are actually two types – natural and unnatural. The former is made by bacteria that live in the fore-stomach (or rumen) of cattle, sheep, goats and deer. This means that they occur naturally in meats such as beef, lamb, goat and venison, as well as dairy products that come from these animals, such as milk, cheese, butter and cream. This type exists in such low amounts, it does us no harm at all.

The same, however, cannot be said of unnatural trans-fats. These are a type of fat made from vegetable oils in an industrial process known as hydrogenation. This involves adding hydrogen to vegetable oil which causes the oil to become solid at room temperature. The benefit it offers the food companies is that it doesn’t go off as quickly as natural oil does. As a result, foods made with it have a much longer shelf life.

Plus, they are ideal for deep frying because they don’t have to be changed as often as natural oils do. They are also easy to use and inexpensive to produce. For these reasons, trans-fats are commonly used in restaurants and fast food outlets.

What do they do to us?
Just one of the problems with trans-fats is that they cause calcification in our veins and arteries. This narrows them, thus decreasing the space available for blood to flow. If an affected person then has a blood clot, particularly in one of the coronary arteries, a stroke, or even death, can be the result. Furthermore, studies have shown that excessive trans-fat consumption can also cause Alzheimer’s disease, prostate and breast cancer, type 2 diabetes, liver dysfunction, infertility and depression.

Studies have found that some types of fast food, such as kebabs and Indian takeaways, can contain more than the recommended daily intake of trans-fats in just one serving. It is estimated that for every percent of energy in a person’s diet that comes from trans-fats, their risk of heart disease rises by up to 15 percent.

What foods contain trans-fats?
As already mentioned, all meat products contain a very small amount of natural trans-fats. These are harmless though due to the minimal quantities involved. The foods in the list below, however, all contain very high amounts of trans-fats and so should be avoided like the plague.

  • Processed popcorn
  • Blended vegetable oils
  • Snack foods such as potato chips
  • Margarine
  • Crackers and biscuits
  • Baked goods – bread, cakes, muffins, etc
  • Pastries, such as doughnuts and croissants
  • Savory foods in pastry, such as pies and sausage rolls
  • Deep-fried fast food, such as fish, fries and chicken
  • Frozen foods that come in wraps or breadcrumbs, e.g. fish fingers

The foods in this list are the worst. There are many others though, albeit with a lower trans-fat content.

How to tell if a food contains trans-fats
In most countries, food manufacturers do not have to mention on the food information label if a product contains trans-fats. However, if a label mentions ‘hydrogenated vegetable oil’ or ‘partially hydrogenated vegetable oil’, the food contains trans-fats.

It is also almost a certainty that any food served in a restaurant, cafe, bar or fast food outlet will be loaded with the stuff.

Calories – What Are They?

Calories – a term most people have heard of but one that not many of us actually know much about.

So, let’s take a look:

What is a calorie
A calorie is a unit of measurement – in the case of food and drink, the measure of the amount of energy it contains.

On average, adult males need around 2,500 kcal a day to maintain a healthy body weight. For women, the figure is around 2,000 kcal a day. These figures vary, depending on size, age and levels of physical activity, amongst various other factors.

Calories and energy balance
Like everything else on our planet, the human body requires energy in order to function. It gets that energy from the food and drink we ingest. The energy is necessary for everything we do – all movements, breathing, sleeping, maintenance of internal body systems, plus a million and one other things.

To maintain a stable weight, the amount of energy we put into our bodies in the form of calories must be equivalent to the amount of energy needed by the body. An essential part of a healthy diet is achieving that balance, i.e. taking in just enough calories to function efficiently and no more.

Get the balance wrong though and one of two things will happen. If the body gets less calories than it needs, it is forced to get energy from its fat stores and muscle tissue. As a result, it loses weight. If the body gets more calories than it needs, on the other hand, rather than throw the excess energy away, it stores it in the form of fat for a rainy day and so gains weight.

How to check calorie intake
From the above, it should be clear that we need to know the calorific content of the food we eat in order to get the balance right. To assist us in this respect, the calorie content of most shop-bought foods is stated on the food information label.

Burning calories
The amount of calories people use by doing a particular physical activity varies, depending on a range of factors that include gender, size and age. The more vigorously an activity is carried out, the more calories will be used. For example, running will burn more calories than walking.

If someone is gaining weight, it means they have been eating and drinking more calories than they’ve been using. To address the problem, they need to use more energy than they consume for as long as it takes to lose the excess weight. They can do this either by reducing their calorie intake (eating less), or burning more calories (exercising more).

The best approach is a bit of both – eat less and exercise more