For some years now, the collective health of the American population has been thoroughly analyzed and scrutinized, especially when it comes to the issue of weight. We are a nation of two-income families, working 50-plus hour weeks, and playing taxi in a rush to get family members to dance and soccer practice. All too often, mealtime amounts to squeezing in a quick visit to a fast food drive-thru to save a few precious minutes of time. Combine that lifestyle with a barrage of advertisements urging us to buy the "new and improved cheesy taste" of an ever-growing list of highly processed snack foods loaded with calories and little nutritional value, and it's no wonder our waistlines are expanding—parents and children included.
The latest dietary monster to be targeted for elimination is a little substance with widespread use called "trans fat." The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states that trans fats, in addition to saturated fats and dietary cholesterol, have been scientifically proven to raise "bad cholesterol" (low-density lipoproteins or LDL) levels which increases the risk of coronary heart disease. In 1990, scientists were startled to find that not only did trans fat increase LDL cholesterol, but it also decreased HDL or "good" cholesterol levels.
Trans fat is made when manufacturers add hydrogen to vegetable oil through a process called hydrogenation. The use of trans fats increases both the shelf life and flavor stability of foods. Trans fats are found in vegetable shortenings, some margarines, cookies, crackers, snack foods, and foods fried in or made with hydrogenated oils.
The FDA adds that not all fats are the same and that some fat is nutritionally necessary in our diets. When eaten in moderation, fat is vital for proper growth, development, and maintenance of good health. Fat provides the body with a source of energy and helps the body absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K along with carotenoids. Fat, as a food ingredient, provides consistency, product stability, and taste. The FDA emphasizes that infants and toddlers have the highest energy needs per unit of body weight of any age group and that parents should be aware that fats are an especially important source of calories and nutrients for infants and toddlers up to 2 years of age.
On January 1, 2006 the FDA began requiring food manufacturers to list trans fat on every item's Nutrition Facts panel. Now it is possible for consumers to know exactly how much saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol is contained in their food choices. As a result of further scientific study and warnings about the negative health impact of trans fat, many fast-food establishments and food manufacturers have started to eliminate the use of trans fat in their products.
Luckily, you can also monitor your family's intake of trans fat as well. The Mayo Clinic advises that when reading a product's Nutrition Facts label, look for the words "partially hydrogenated" vegetable oil, which is another term for trans fat. The word "shortening" is also an indication that some trans fat is present. Oddly enough, "fully" hydrogenated oil does not contain trans fat. The Mayo Clinic also adds that items containing less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving are allowed to be listed as 0 grams trans fat on the nutrition label. Although it is a small amount of trans fat, multiple servings could cause you to exceed the recommended daily intake limits.
For a heart-healthy diet, the Mayo Clinic notes that 30 percent or less of your total daily calories should come from fat and that saturated fat should amount to less than 7 percent of your daily calories. When choosing fats, look for monounsaturated fats like those found in canola, olive, and peanut oils.
So with a little label reading and some wise food substitutions, you can easily begin to divert your family away from the dangers of trans fat and put them on the path to a long, heart-healthy life!
As with any medical or nutritional choices, consult with your family physician or a health professional regarding any health- related issues.
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