Protect Your Heart and Arteries during the Holiday Season

If you have heart disease or any health condition such as high cholesterol or high triglycerides, you may have started feeling a little apprehensive as you see the holiday season approaching. You are fully aware that plenty of sweets, cookies, pies, cakes and the like are going to be around during the next few weeks and you know that despite the bad press all those goodies have earned over the years, you are going to sink your teeth into them. You also know that when the holidays are over, you’ll feel guilty as they come for having succumbed to temptation. Not a rosy outlook, indeed!

Relax, don’t panic. Just by taking a couple of preventive steps, you can have your cake and eat it, and by that I mean that you can eat your cakes, pies, cookies, and still protect your arteries. If you are wondering how that’s possible, here is how: watch out for trans fats and stay away from them as much as possible.

What are trans fats?
Trans fats are the worst of all fats. Hydrogenated oils or trans fats, as they are usually called, are produced artificially by inserting molecules of hydrogen in vegetable oils, a process called hydrogenation. Through this process, the oil, which is liquid at room temperature, changes it original form and becomes solid. In addition, the new fat ends up with an unnatural chemical structure.

Why do you need to stay away from trans fats?
Trans fats can hurt because:
• Through the manufacturing process, the liquid oil becomes solid or saturated; saturated fat can get stuck in your arteries. In addition, eating too much saturated fat may cause your liver to produce more cholesterol than your body needs.
• Because of the hydrogenation process, the original oil ends up with a different chemical structure. The unnatural shapes of trans fats cause our cells to become malformed and to malfunction. And that includes the cells of the heart and arteries.
• They raise LDL cholesterol, the “bad” guy. This is the type of cholesterol responsible for clogging the arteries.
• They lower HDL cholesterol, the “good” guy. This is the one you need in abundance to clean your arteries.
• They damage the lining of the arteries, setting the stage for the formation of plaque. Plaque also clogs your arteries.

So, what products should you stay away from during the holidays to avoid trans fats?
You probably have guessed by now. During the holiday season (and this goes also for the rest of the year) you need to pay particular attention to commercial baked goods containing high amounts of fat such as cakes, pies, cookies, croissants, donuts, ice cream, and the like.

Does this mean you have to go through the holidays without having a cookie or a piece of cake?
No. What you need to do is minimize the potential harm trans fats can cause. How? By doing the following:

• When buying commercial baked goods always read the label. If the label indicates the product has any amount of trans fats don’t buy it. The report issued by the Institute of Medicine in 2002 doesn’t set maximum levels for trans fats but food authorities believe any amount above zero is a risk.
• Check also the ingredients on the label and look for hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil. Food manufacturers do not have to list the amount of trans fats if the total fat in the food is less than 0.5 grams per serving. As a safety measure, don’t buy products that list this type of oil as part of the ingredients.
• Dust off your favorite recipes for cookies, pies, and cakes and do some baking at home. Choose a recipe that uses butter instead or margarine. In the past we assumed that margarine was better for the heart because it’s produced from vegetable oils and has no cholesterol; however, solid margarine is made from hydrogenated oils and contains large amounts of trans fats.
• Email your favorite cookie recipe to those friends and family members who like to show up at your door on Christmas day with commercial baked cookies as a present. They might take the hint.

Health authorities are concerned that the consumption of trans fats might have contributed to the 20th century epidemic of coronary heart disease because they are compounds that have unnatural shapes. But if you follow these few guidelines, you will have taken a big step towards the protection of your heart and arteries. And what is even better, you won’t have to deal with a guilty conscience on January the 2nd.

Remember, however, to practice moderation when it comes to amounts and portions; after all, baked goods can be high in calories since they contain large amounts of fat and sugar.