Thursday, January 5, 2012

are trans-fats shrinking your brain?

trans-fat - fish and chips | photo: BrokenSphere
It happens all the time.  You're out and about, after a soccer game, running errands, running late for a meeting, and you decide to stop for a quick bite to eat.  More often than not it's probably fast food.  We all know fast food isn'ty really good for you.  Now, aside from the poor quality meat, high levels of fat and sodium, and low nutrient density, it looks like there's even more reason to avoid that drive-through window.

A recent study run by Dr. Gene L. Bowman, an assistant professor of neurology at the Layton Aging and Alzheimer's Disease Center at the Oregon Health & Science University, found that people with high levels of trans-fats in their blood had lower cognitive performance scores as well as lower brain volume.  While the study was admittedly small and homogenous (100, elderly Caucasians living in Oregon), Dr. Bowman notes that the results of the testing were so clear that this particular pattern should not be ignored.  Testing looked at nutrient levels in the body, cognitive function and included MRI studies.  What does this mean?  In plain English, there was a positive correlation between higher levels of trans-fats and lower brain function and smaller brain size.  That's a scary thought.

Because we know that trans-fats are bad for our heart one would think that would be enough to convince people to avoid them.  However that is not the case as evidence by how many products still contain them.  Now it looks like trans-fats are also bad for your brain.   Even more reason to avoid them.  Since it's difficult to identify trans-fats in fast food, and truthfully most people don't take the time to look it up on those posted-near-the-bathroom menu charts, it's best to avoid fast food altogether.  A quick run-down of some popular fast food items that contain trans-fats includes:

  • KFC - chicken pot pie 
  • Burger King - large hash browns
  • Jack in the Box - large fish and chips
  • Dairy Queen - 4 pc chicken strip basket
  • McDonald's - baked apple pie
This information is correct to the best of my knowledge.  It is important to note that although many fast food restaurants are proudly touting no trans-fats in their food, they still have them in the ingredients.  This is due to a Federal ruling that allows them to claim no trans-fats if there is less than .05 per serving.  However it adds up pretty quickly.

Fast food is not, alas, the only place that one finds trans-fats.  There are plenty of items on the grocery store shelf that contains them as well.  Look for the words hydrogenated and partially-hydrogenated to see if there are any trans-fats in that food item.  These trans-fats are not from natural sources (there is a small amount that occurs in beef, lamb, and dairy) but from forcing hydrogen into liquid fats to make them solid at room temperature.  Not a healthy option.

Why are trans-fats bad for you?  For one they raise the level of LDL or "bad" cholesterol in your system.    Unfortunately they also lower the level of HDL or "good" cholesterol.  Not a good combination.  Avoiding them is important not only for your heart, but now, we find out, for your brain as well.

So what should you do when you are out and about and need a snack?  There are a several options available.  
  1. Have a protein bar available - I almost always have a healthy protein bar in my glove box for an emergency snack.  
  2. Stop at a grocery store and buy an apple and some raw nuts.  It's a delicious and healthy snack.  Often it costs far less than that drive-through meal.  The trick is not to get side-tracked in the grocery store and start to shop for other things.  Treat it like a fast food run, you can always do your grocery shopping later.  
  3. Plan ahead.  If you know you are going to be out and about you can plan ahead and bring food with you.  Using a handy snack container, such as a Laptop Lunchbox, you can pack a healthy snack and skip the trans-fats.

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