Trans Fat May Make You Irritable, So Get Angry
For the first time, researchers have evidence that consuming trans fat can make you irritable and aggressive. Since these dietary fats are associated with significant health problems, including heart disease, it’s okay to get angry if you do something about it, like change your diet.
Trans fat is not a happy fat
Until the past two decades, few people had ever heard of trans fat, a type of saturated fat that, for the most part, is found in processed foods and is the result of a process called hydrogenation. Hydrogenation involves adding hydrogen atoms to unsaturated fats, which converts them into partially (partially hydrogenated fat) or completely saturated fats (hydrogenated fat).
For decades, hydrogenated fat was synonymous with margarine and a baking product called Crisco, and these popular food items became a part of daily life and people’s diets, especially as fast food grew in popularity.
Then about 17 years ago, an important study published in the American Journal of Public Health reported that trans fat could be associated with about 20,000 deaths per year in the United States from heart disease. This report, along with scores of other research endeavors, eventually lead to restrictions on trans fat in foods, and US manufacturers now have to list the amount of the fat on their labels.
In addition to the detrimental effects on the heart (see below), a new study has shown trans fat may have another negative impact. At the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, Beatrice Golomb, MD, PhD, associate professor in the UCSD Department of Medicine, and her colleagues found trans fat consumption is associated with irritability and aggression.
The researchers analyzed dietary and behavioral data of 945 adult men and women of all ages, whites and minorities, including their consumption of trans fat. Factors taken into account included sex, age, education, and use of alcohol and tobacco.
They found that “greater trans fatty acids were significantly associated with greater aggression, and were more consistently predictive of aggression and irritability.” At this point, scientists do not know if trans fat consumption actually is a cause of aggressive behavior, but if further tests show that it does, explained Golomb, “this adds further rationale to recommendations to avoid eating trans fats, or including them in foods provided at institutions like schools and prisons.”
Health dangers of trans fat
Consumption of trans fat, also known as trans fatty acids, can raise your low-density lipoprotein (LDL) “bad” cholesterol and lower your high-density lipoprotein (HDL) “good” cholesterol. A combination of high LDL and low HDL can increase the risk of heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States.
Trans fat consumption may also raise your triglyceride levels. Triglycerides are a type of fat in the blood that can contribute to hardening of the arteries. Trans fat may also damage cells in blood vessels, which can result in inflammation and an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has stated that “trans fatty acids are not essential and provide no known benefit to human health.” The NAS statement is supported by the work of many researchers, including those in a New England Journal of Medicine review, which noted that “from a nutritional standpoint, the consumption of trans fatty acids results in considerable potential harm but no apparent benefit.”
Get angry, avoid trans fat
As of January 2006, food manufacturers were ordered to comply with mandatory trans fat labeling by the Food and Drug Administration. However, you should be aware that according to FDA regulations, “if the serving contains less than 0.5 gram [of trans fat], the content, when declared, shall be expressed as zero.”
This wording by the FDA leaves the door wide open for food manufacturers to include trans fat in their products without having to declare it if it is less than a certain amount. For example, if you eat two servings of a food that contains 0.4 grams of trans fat (which will not be noted on the package) per serving, you will actually consume 1.2 grams of trans fat.
To help identify if a food contains trans fat in low amounts per serving, look for the words “partially hydrogenated,” “hydrogenated,” or “shortening” on the ingredient panel. Be especially careful of products such as cookies, crackers, muffins, breads, stick margarines and vegetable shortening, pre-mixed cake and pancake mixes, fried foods, snack foods, microwave popcorn, and frozen dinners.
Eating foods that contain trans fat may make you irritable and aggressive, but you could also get angry—in a good way—and fight back by avoiding foods that contain trans fat and turning to healthier alternatives, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, naturally processed nuts and seeds, and whole grains.
Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. Dietary reference intakes for energy, carbohydrate, fiber, fat, fatty acids, cholesterol, protein, and amino acids (macronutrients). National Academies Press, 2005.
Mozaffarian D et al. Trans fatty acids and cardiovascular disease. New England Journal of Medicine 2006 Apr; 354(15): 1601-13
University of California San Diego
Willett WC, Ascherio A. Trans fatty acids: are the effects only marginal? American Journal of Public Health 1995; 85(3): 411-12