What's up with Free Radicals & Trans Fats?

TRANS FATS. Two big, bad words trending in today’s nutrition marketing frenzy. Often times, these trends prove false, unwarranted, and even bad for us when followed (the low fat diet, for example). The summary below illustrates why this trend might have legs and be worth listening to. The following information will get you up to speed with these little lipid monsters, how they encourage free radicals, and how antioxidants can help defend against them.


TRANS FAT Trans fatty acids are vegetable oils that have been chemically altered to include added hydrogen...also known as partial hydrogenation. This means, your fake butter spread will not only last longer on the shelf, but it will be cheaper, it will be more stable at high heat, and it will make your donut super scrumptious and less greasy (mayoclinic.org, 2011). Hydrogenation sounds like a great invention, so it’s been used in most manufactured foods including frozen pizza, coffee creamer, and boxed crackers. But what it also means is that it may clog your arteries, increase “bad” cholesterol (LDL), lower your good cholesterol (HDL), cause heart disease and Type II Diabetes (Mercola, 2003), as well as cause and provoke inflammation in the body (Gangemi, 2011), a precursor to many chronic diseases. Still want that donut?

FREE RADICALS Free Radicals are like hyper-aggressive free agents. They’re missing an electron which makes them energetically out of balance, highly unstable and in search of other molecules to latch onto to corrupt. They wreak havoc by destroying cellular membranes, enzymes, and DNA (cell mutation!); and then replicate again and again. This is called oxidation (think old, rusty metal), and when it happens inside the body it can lead to chronic illness including heart disease, macular degeneration, accelerated aging, and cancer (Chatgilialoglu, 2007). Our body actually makes some free radicals on its own. Small amounts are necessary. This happens during the body’s energy production process, fighting infection, and inflammatory responses (Bauman, 2014)...remember that donut?  

ANTIOXIDANT Whether made naturally in the body, or taken in from that divine donut, it’s important to keep free radicals under control by consuming lots of antioxidants. Some antioxidants can be made by the body but you must also get them through your diet to prevent oxidative stress caused by free radicals. Here’s the easy part: they’re found in vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients within your veggies, fruits, herbs, spices, and tea...they’re everywhere! Antioxidant vitamins include C, E, and beta-carotene (think color! e.g. sweet potato, broccoli, and oranges). Selenium is your antioxidant mineral powerhouse and Brazil nuts are a perfect source. Other minerals include manganese, zinc, and copper and can be found in many beans, nuts, and seeds. For phytonutrient sources think of purple or berries. For example: prunes, blueberries, and red cabbage (Wood, 2010). 


The bad news is that trans fats are in almost all highly processed, packaged foods. The good news is that trans fats are in almost all highly processed, packaged foods, which means you can avoid them if you EAT REAL FOOD! Put down that box or that bag and pick up that fruit, veggie, or nut! There is much more to be said about trans fats, free radicals, and antioxidants...and it can be confusing. The important thing to remember is that your body is smart. If you treat it right, put things in it that grow naturally, avoid the stuff made in a lab, you can fight the stress and damage that free radicals cause.


Bauman, E. & Friedlander, J. (2014). Foundations of nutrition. Penngrove, CA: Bauman College. Gangemi, S. Dr.Gangemi.com Health for life. (2011, Jan). Inflammation Information. Retrieved from: http://www.drgangemi.com/articles/inflammation_info_i/. Mercola.Com. Take Control of Your Health. (2003, Jul). Trans-Fat: What Exactly is it, and Why is it so Dangerous?. Retrieved from: http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2003/07/19/trans-fat-part-three.aspx. Mayoclinic.org. Staff. (2011, May). Trans fat is double trouble for your heart health. Retrieved from: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/high-blood-cholesterol/in-depth/trans-fat/art-20046114. Chatgilialoglu, C. Institute for optimum nutrition. (2007, summer). Fats of life. Retrieved from: http://www.ion.ac.uk/information/onarchives/fatsoflife. Wood, R. (2010). The new whole foods encyclopedia. New York, NY: Penguin Books