Called trans fat (or trans fatty acids), this substance is formed when liquid oil is “hydrogenated,” or made into a solid (such as margarine or shortening). Although trans fat isn’t nearly as prevalent as saturated fat — the other “bad” one — it has been linked to a number of serious health problems, including type II diabetes and breast cancer. Trans fat also raises the risk of heart disease by increasing LDL (“bad” cholesterol) and lowering HDL (“good” cholesterol).
For expectant and nursing moms, however, trans fat brings unique health risks. According to one recent study, pregnant women who ate the most trans fat were seven times more likely to experience preeclampsia, a dangerous complication in which blood pressure suddenly spikes. And because trans fat interferes with the body’s use of omega-3 fats — essential building blocks for the brain and the eyes — a high trans-fat diet during pregnancy or breastfeeding could affect the growth of these organs in the baby.
Diet dos and don’ts
Until trans-fat content is provided on all food labels (which should happen early this year), avoid foods that list “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” oil. These include peanut butter, hot cocoa mix, chocolate candy bars, microwave popcorn, flour tortillas, and some ready-to-eat breakfast cereals. Here, a list of the other usual suspects and their healthy alternatives.
- Stick margarines and shortening Remember, the more solid a fat, the more trans fat it has.Better choices: Pick up a tub of margarine instead of a stick, looking for one that lists liquid oil at the top of the ingredient list. And rather than shortening, choose canola or olive oil.
- Doughnuts, cakes, pastries, crackers, cookies, and chips Unfortunately, these tasty snacks are usually made with or fried in shortening, making them prime trans-gressors.
Better choices: Fat-free pretzels or organic brands of chips that are made with non-hydrogenated oil.
- Chicken nuggets, fried chicken, onion rings, and french fries Usually fried in hydrogenated oils, these foods come loaded with trans fat.
Better choices: A grilled chicken sandwich or hamburger with a lightly dressed salad.
Bridget Swinney is the mother of two boys and author of Eating Expectantly and Healthy Food for Healthy Kids (Meadowbrook Press).