Raising cholesterol is just one of many, many dangers of trans fats.
This is the one danger that is most commonly cited, because most people can identify with it. The average person who learns about something raising blood cholesterol will automatically react by thinking that it is bad, harmful and dangerous.
This is not always the case – because, as I shall explain later, high cholesterol by itself is not necessarily a bad thing.
Saturated fats raise cholesterol as well. But there is a big difference between the dangers of trans fats raising cholesterol and the mistaken dangers of saturated fats raising cholesterol.
Trans fats and cholesterol
Let me explain…
First, as you probably already know, cholesterol can be divided into two main types
- HDL cholesterol or high densitity lipoprotein, the so-called “good cholesterol”
- LDL cholesterol or low density lipoprotein, the so-called “bad cholesterol”.
Saturated fats raise both types of cholesterol. In this sense, they might be considered partly harmful, partly beneficial.
Trans fats, on the other hand, raise LDL or bad cholesterol and, at the same time, lower HDL or good cholesterol. The dangers of trans fats are therefore two-fold. Many health writers describe these dangers of trans fats as a “double whammy”!
In this respect, trans fats are totally harmful. There is nothing good about them.
Dangers of trans fats – heart disease
A more significant difference is this:
- Saturated fats raise cholesterol but DO NOT cause heart disease.
- Trans fats raise LDL cholesterol, lower HDL cholesterol and CAUSE heart disease.
Pardon me if I confuse you a little here. But this is something very important to understand:
|High cholesterol, on its own, does not cause heart disease.|
Before the last century, people throughout the world ate large amounts of saturated fats as their main form of cooking fat – lard in China, butter in Europe, ghee in India, coconut oil in the tropics. And some of these people do have high cholesterol levels.
Yet, before the last century, heart disease was extremely rare. Heart disease started to become common in the US only after the 1920s and 1930s – when margarine consumption rose during the Great Depression (1929 through most of the 1930s) because many people were poor and could not afford butter.
In some other parts of the world, heart disease became common only as recently as the 1970s and 1980s. Till today, there traditional societies countries with low rates of heart disease even though the population consume large amounts of saturated fat.
The dangers of trans fats in causing heart disease thus do not simply lie with the fact that trans fats raise cholesterol. Other dangers of trans fats are involved as well, including:
- Trans fats (as well as rancid oils) damage artery walls,
causing abnormal plaque build-up that eventually blocks the flow of
- Trans fats promote inflammation which, again, can damage artery walls and result in abnormal plaque build up.
Another of the dangers of trans fats is that inflammation can cause artery walls to rupture. This could result in massive blood clots that obstruct the flow of blood, causing either a heart attack or a stroke. It could also result in massive loss of blood through internal bleeding, leading to death.
Another of the dangers of trans fats – in contrast to the benefits of saturated fats – involve atherogenic lipoprotein (a), or Lp(a).
Lp(a) is a type of LDL cholesterol or “bad cholesterol” associated with heart disease. And trans fats raise the level of Lp(a).
Interestingly, even though saturated fats are supposed to raise all types of cholesterol, they actually lower the level of Lp(a).
So once again, we find that trans fat and saturated fat have opposite effects on health. With regards to Lp(a), saturated fats protect against heart disease whereas trans fats contribute to heart disease.
Dangers of trans fats – Omega 3
In recent years, scientists have uncovered many benefits of omega 3.
Both omega 3 and omega 6 are called essential fatty acids (EFAs). They are essential because
- They impart many health benefits to the body. Among other
things, omega 3 protects against heart disease, cancer and other
- Our body cannot produce omega 3 and omega 6 and we need to take them from food. So it is essential that we eat foods rich in omega 3 and omega 6.
But while both omega 3 and omega 6 are essential, most people today have too much omega 6 from taking polyunsaturated vegetable oils. And they have too little omega 3 from not eating enough fish and seafood, nuts and seeds.
So omega 3 is particularly important because most people do not take enough.
Here is where, once again, the dangers of trans fat – and the benefits of saturated fats – show up.
The dangers of trans fats are that they inhibit the body’s use of omega-3 fatty acids and the production of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids – EPA and DHA, the types found to be most beneficial to health.
In contrast, saturated fats enhance the body’s use of omega-3 fatty as well as the production of the long-chain omega 3.
Large scale epidemiological studies by Walter Willett and other Harvard University researchers confirm that the dangers of trans fats extend extend beyond their effects on blood cholesterol levels.
In an update on Trans Fatty Acids and Coronary Heart Disease, published in the New England Journal of Medicine (April 2006), Harvard researchers wrote: The increase in risk of coronary heart disease caused by trans fat is higher than predicted by effects on blood lipids alone.
Back in 1994, Walter Willett estimated that trans fats were responsible for at least 30,000 premature deaths from heart disease in the US each year.
In the 2006 update, that estimate has been revised. Harvard researchers now believe that eliminating trans fats from the US food supply could prevent between 6 and 19 percent of heart attacks and related deaths each year.
In the US, abut 1.2 million heart attack and related deaths occur each year. Thus, 6 to 19 percent works out to between 72,000 and 228,000 deaths that can be prevented by eliminating trans fats.
The Harvard update concluded:
These data highlight the need for rapid implementation of labeling requirements that include fast foods. Because partially hydrogenated fats can be eliminated from the food supply by changes in processing that do not require major efforts in education and behavioral modification, these changes would be an extremely efficient and rapid method for substantially reducing rates of coronary disease.