VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- For years, doctors have been advising Americans not to consume trans fats. But do you really stay away from them?
What if trans fats cause the onset of Alzheimer's disease? That question led to an investigation at Portland's Oregon Health and Science University, led by Dr. Gene Bowman.
"We're interested in things that might have a role in the prevention of Alzheimer's disease," he said. "But we're also looking for things that actually might be causing the disease."
Big Brains vs. Small Brains
Dr. Bowman and his colleagues studied 104 seniors with an average age of 87 years. They submitted blood samples that revealed what nutrients were in their bodies. They also took thinking and memory tests. And they had MRI brain scans.
Scientists discovered those with higher levels of trans fats in their blood had smaller brains.
A person's brain size can change with aging. Brain shrinkage is one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer's disease. A larger brain is considered to be healthier.
"We know that in Alzheimer's disease that the brain shrinks at an accelerated pace as the disease and pathology spreads to certain parts of the brain," Dr. Bowman explained.
"But if you have a larger brain and more brain tissue, you might have a reserve to handle that pathology better," he added.
In addition to smaller brains, people who ate more trans fats also scored lower on thinking and memory tests.
Word to the Wise
So based on the results of this study, removing trans fats from the diet could improve your overall brain health. But that is easier said than done, according to Dr. Bowman.
"Trans fats are all over the place," he said, laughing.
Fried food, fast food, vegetable shortening, and margarine are full of trans fats. Packaged foods, like cookies, crackers, and potato chips, all contain trans fats.
If you want to make sure you are not eating something made with trans fat, just read the list of ingredients on the package. If you see the word, "hydrogenated," put it back on the shelf.
Trans fats are oils that have been infused with hydrogen to prolong their shelf life, among other things. It's pretty safe to assume that foods that stay "fresh" for weeks and months contain trans fats.
Be careful not to fall prey to a food industry trick. Don't believe all the labels the front of the package, which claim a food has no trans fat.
There's really only one way to know for sure. Check the list of ingredients for the word "hydrogenated."
Sometimes the front labels are stamped "no trans fat" when the food actually contains it. That's because the government allows a food manufacturer to claim a food is "trans fat free" even if it contains up to a half of a gram of trans fat per serving.
The food makers meet this standard by declaring tiny serving sizes have just a little less than a half a gram of trans fat.
But what often happens is those serving sizes are so small, the average person eats a lot of servings at one sitting and therefore consumes a lot of trans fat.
So according to the study, the people who ate lots of trans fats had the lowest test scores and the smallest brains.
Vitamins & Fish Oil
On the flip side, the people who had the largest brains and the highest test scores had blood that contained high levels of the vitamins B,C, D and E and also the seafood type of Omega-3 fatty acids.
"So it's a combination of staying away from the bad and getting the good. If you just do one, you may not get the bonus effect," Dr. Bowman said.
For years, doctors have recommended eating foods that contain vitamins B,C,D,E and Omega-3's while at the same time staying away from trans fats. It's been touted as a heart healthy diet.
As it turns out, foods that help or hurt the brain have the same effect on the heart.
Cardiologist Deepak Talreja, a physician with Cardiovascular Associates, in Virginia Beach, Va., tells his patients that daily food choices can literally mean the difference between life and death.
"Trans fats are probably one of the most dangerous things we can consume that you see in everyday foods that have no restrictions on them," he warned.
Artery-clogging trans fats double your risk of a heart attack and contribute to stroke, vascular disease, even diabetes. On the other hand, vitamin-rich fruits, vegetables, and Omega-3s reduce the risk of heart disease.
Dr. Talreja also recommends taking daily fish oil supplements, enough so that the DHA and EPA fats in them equal one to two grams.
This kind of prevention, he believes, saves time and money.
"There are many simple things we can do that would improve health across the nation, that would help the economics of health care," he explained.
"If patients didn't get sick in the first place, it would cost a lot less to take care of them and we'd all have better quality of life," Talreja said. "This is a topic that really doesn't get enough attention at all."
So whether you're targeting your heart or your brain, the prescription is the same. Say no to trans fats and instead, load up on vitamins and fish oils.
*Published Mar. 22, 2012.