Trans fat FAQ

Trans fats have been in the news a lot recently. Have you retained the important facts? Refresh your knowledge with our trans fat FAQ. We've thrown in some bonus questions on cholesterol as well.

  1. What are trans fats?
    Trans fats, sometimes referred to as trans fatty acids, are formed when vegetable and other liquid oils are processed by food manufacturers and made solid or into a more solid liquid (think of hard margarines or shortening). While the majority of trans fats appear in processed food, trans fats may also appear naturally in low quantities in some dairy and meat products.
  2. What is hydrogenation?
    Hydrogenation is the process by which liquid oils are made more solid. In more scientific terms, hydrogenation is the process by which unsaturated fat is processed to become more saturated - which helps to increase the shelf life of processed foods, but can be detrimental to your health. Unsaturated fats are thought to decrease cholesterol levels in your blood and are found at high levels in vegetable oils (olive oil, canola, etc.) As a general rule, at room temperature, unsaturated fats are liquid. So what's wrong with saturated fat? Saturated fat poses the highest risk for the development of atherosclerosis (hardening and narrowing of the arteries) and ensuing cardiovascular problems.
  3. What foods contain trans fats?
    As mentioned in answer #1, trans fats appear primarily in processed foods. These foods include commercially baked goods (e.g., crackers, cookies, cakes), fried foods (e.g., chips, french fries), hard margarines, and shortening. And be aware of fried foods in restaurants because these often contain added trans fats (as restaurants often use margarines and shortenings to prepare food). Naturally occurring trans fats appear in some meats and dairy products.
  4. How can I find out how much trans fat is in foods?
    To find out how much trans fat is in the food you're eating, check the nutrition label. Canadian food manufacturers are now required to list the trans fat content on the labels of most pre-packaged foods. Look at the nutrition label under "fat" and you will see a listing for "trans fats." This listing will tell you how much trans fat each serving contains.
  5. What are the health reasons for avoiding trans fats?
    Consuming large amounts of trans fats increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. With the widespread appearance of trans fats (and other fats) in our diet, the average North American currently eats approximately 5 times the recommended daily allowance of bad dietary fats, including trans fats. 

  6. Why do trans fats appear so commonly in food?
    Food manufacturers use hydrogenated oils to add shelf life to their products (think of packaged cookies and crackers which last a long time) and often add a "better" texture to the food (such as flakier pie shells, or a more spreadable dip or topping). At present, some food manufacturers are working to eliminate trans fats from their recipes and offer healthier products.
  7. How can I avoid trans fats?
    Inform yourself! Remember that processed and fried foods should be avoided. Use liquid (not solid) oils to cook foods at home (such as olive, canola, or corn oils). And as always, choose fresh, low-fat food for your meals.
    Bonus questions:
  8. What are the 2 types of cholesterol?
    There are 2 types of cholesterol found in your blood. The "bad" cholesterol is called low density lipoprotein (LDL). While certain levels of LDL are required for cell production and cell repair, too much LDL can spell trouble in the form of cardiovascular disease. The other type of cholesterol is the "good" cholesterol – high density lipoprotein (HDL). HDL helps remove extra LDL from our blood vessels and can help protect against hardening of the arteries.
  9. What is the interplay of trans fats with cholesterol?
    Studies show that trans fats contribute to increases of blood LDL cholesterol (the "bad" cholesterol). In addition, some studies also show that trans fats may decrease the levels of "good"cholesterol – HDL cholesterol
  10. Why should I be concerned about high blood cholesterol?
    As mentioned in answer #8, high levels of blood cholesterol (LDL) present an increased risk for developing cardiovascular disease.

The growing obesity epidemic

Experts tell us that there is a global obesity epidemic and, troublingly, our children are also at risk. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that obesity is one of the world's most neglected public health problems, and it affects both adults and children alike, in both developed and developing countries. In 2008, the WHO's records showed that there were approximately more than 1.4 billion adults, 20 and older, were overweight. Of these, over 200 million men and nearly 300 million women were obese, and approximately 42 million children under the age of 5 were overweight or obese in 2013.1

As for Canada, 2 out of every 3 adults are overweight or obese; 24% of adults and 9% of children are obese, a proportion that has tripled over the past 25 years.

Why do childhood obesity rates cause alarm in the medical community? One of the major concerns is that obese children will grow into obese adults who will then arrive at an increased risk for diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and other chronic conditions. Officials believe that with such a large segment of the population facing increased risks of developing these conditions, the threat to public health is becoming serious.

At the individual level, the consequences of these diseases include a possible decrease in overall quality of life due to the development of a chronic health condition, and even premature death. At a societal level, this epidemic will have financial costs as well as social implications, as families will have to deal with increasing health care challenges for themselves and their family members.

So how can we counter these increasing obesity rates? The answer appears to be two-fold. It involves the food we eat and the amount of energy we spend.

First of all, we need to modify our diets and reduce our intake of high-energy, high-fat foods. In North America, these types of foods are common, and they arrive in large portion sizes. Adults and children should consume diets that follow Eating Well with Canada's Food Guide. Keep in mind that the energy we take in through our food should not exceed the energy we spend on physical activity.

And that leads us to the second part of countering the prevalence of obesity. Increasingly, our society as a whole is becoming less active and more sedentary. Children report spending hours per day in front of the television or playing video games or other low-energy activities. More physical activity is needed! Experts have stated that children require 60 minutes a day and adults require 150 minutes of active physical activity per week – and appeals have been made to school boards to work this into the curriculum for students from kindergarten up to grade 12.

Why not take control of your diet and your amount of physical activity? Set the standard for your family and encourage them to follow. Children in particular need to learn healthy habits early on - it's an important step to help combat the epidemic of obesity.

Serving size savvy

Most of us are aware of Eating Well with Canada's Food Guide and its recommendations to eat a certain number of servings from each food group each day. But what makes up a serving?

Eating Well with Canada's Food Guide advises Canadians to consume a certain number of servings per food group each day. This number is presented as a range, with considerations for your body size, your level of activity, your age, your gender, and physical factors such as being pregnant or breast-feeding.

For grain products, the recommended daily range is:

  • 3 to 6 servings for children (between the ages of 2 and 13)
  • 6 to 7 servings for teens (between the ages of 14 and 18)
  • 6 to 8 servings for adults (ages 19 and above)

For example, one slice of bread is a serving, as is ½ cup of brown rice. To help yourself visualize these serving sizes, remember that 1 cup equals 250 mL, which happens to be the standard size of a drink box.

For fruits and vegetables, the recommended daily range is:

  • 4 to 6 servings for children
  • 7 to 8 servings for teens
  • 7 to 10 servings for adults

For example, each medium-sized fruit or vegetable is one serving, as is ½ cup of juice or ½ cup of canned/frozen/fresh fruit or vegetables.

For milk products, the recommended daily range is:

  • 2 to 4 servings for children
  • 3 to 4 servings for teens
  • 2 to 3 servings for adults

For example, one milk serving is 1 cup of 1% milk, or 2 slices (or 50 g) of cheese, or ¾ cup of yogurt.

For meat and alternatives, the recommended daily range is:

  • 1 to 2 servings for children
  • 2 to 3 servings for teens
  • 2 to 3 servings for adults

For example, one serving is 75 g of lean meat, fish, or poultry (about the size of a standard computer mouse), or ¾ cup of tofu, or ¾ cup (175 mL) of cooked legumes (e.g., beans).

Women who are pregnant or breast-feeding require more calories than the average adult. They should add an extra 2 to 3 Food Guide Servings per day. Women who are pregnant or breast-feeding should take a multivitamin with folic acid daily, and pregnant women should make sure that their multivitamin also includes iron. You can consult with your health care professional about which multivitamin is right for you.

For more details on Eating Well with Canada's Food Guide, visit

DASH for high blood pressure relief

Experts say the DASH diet can help lower your blood pressure. Do you know what the DASH diet is?

DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. Simply stated, hypertension is the medical term for high blood pressure. This diet differs from most other traditional diets as it does not restrict the quantity of food you may eat, but rather encourages people to actually increase their intake of fruits and vegetables, and milk products. The upper end of the recommended range of daily servings from Eating Well with Canada's Food Guide gives you an idea of the quantities this diet promotes. In addition, this diet also requires that daily fat intake remain moderate - not high.

In nutritional studies, participants are permitted to eat only foods provided by the study organizers. Different groups of people are given different types of diets to follow. In one such study, the group that enjoyed a diet that was rich in fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products, while at the same time having a reduced saturated and total fat intake (compared to the average American diet), showed the greatest decrease in blood pressure compared to the other diet regimens. This was the DASH diet. The evidence supports a positive relation between high sodium intake and risk of cardiovascular disease, but results from studies with health outcomes were insufficient to conclude whether low sodium intake (less than 2.3 g per day or less than 1.5 g per day, as recommended in current dietary guidelines) is associated with an increased or reduced risk of cardiovascular disease in the general population.2

What is the significance of this? It offers a way for people to help lower their blood pressure - simply through the foods they choose to eat.

Keep in mind that changing your dietary habits requires a strong commitment. Talk to your doctor about the DASH diet, and whether or not it is the right choice for you. Never adjust existing treatment for your high blood pressure without the advice of your doctor. And if you suspect you may have high blood pressure, see your doctor.