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Trans Fats and Tax Codes

 Trans Fats & Taxes

Deep frying produces trans fats

Deep frying (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s tax day in America and you’re forgiven if trans fats aren’t uppermost in your mind. However, it’s actually a fitting time to consider how our tax code perpetuates our healthcare crisis.

A recent report about the South not being the fattest region in America, as generally perceived, got me to thinking about why it nevertheless leads in diabetes and stroke rates.

Even though the South may not deserve its reputation as America”s fattest region, it still is home to America’s “stroke belt”, and diabetes belt as well.  So if the West North Central region (North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri) have an even higher rate of obesity but fewer strokes and less diabetes, what does that suggest?

Food Quality as Important as Quantity

If the South’s higher diabetes and stroke rates aren’t attributable solely to obesity – the quantity of food consumed – they’re likely attributable to the poor quality of food consumed (see “Nutrition & Diet Are Your Best Medicine“). This largely relates to the way the southern diet is prepared, as in a disproportionate amount of deep fried foods.

Deep fried foods using partially hydrogenated vegetable oils that still dominate Southern cuisine produces dangerous trans fats that increase LDL (bad) cholesterol and lower HDL (good) cholesterol.

And trans fats have the unique ability to not only wreak destruction on body organs directly, but to compound the damage by redistributing fat to the belly (see below) – where it can wreak further long-term damage (see “Belly Fat – The Enemy Within“).

Sugar, of course, plays a big role as well, especially regarding diabetes, and salt is directly correlated with high blood pressure that increases stroke risk.

So it’s not just fried foods or trans fats in a vacuum, but in a larger context of other anti-nutrients laden with excess salt and sugar.

Together this anti-nutrient trio makes for a pretty toxic brew, and they’re so ingrained in our SAD American diet because the government actually subsidizes them. This allows food manufacturers to sell their toxic products at cheaper prices and dominate the American diet.

Which brings us to how our labyrinthian tax code promotes disease-promoting food products that are driving much of the healthcare crisis that threatens to bankrupt America (see Our Healthcare Sucks).

Trans Fat Basics

Despite protests from industry apologists masquerading as “consumer advocates” (talk about hubris!), no amount of artificial trans fats is nutritionally acceptable.

Unfortunately, avoiding them altogether is made more difficult by packaging regulations that allow manufacturers to label foods with up to a half-gram of trans fats per serving as  “zero trans fat”. Since serving sizes in packaged foods are often purposely small to stay under such regulatory requirements, it’s fairly easy to consume several servings at a time and drive up your trans fat consumption of even “zero trans fat” foods due to deceptive packaging practices.

Common culprits include fried foods (including french fries and fried fish…frying negates fish benefits), cookies, doughnuts, frostings, other baked goods, and sweets generally. The words “partially hydrogenated fats (or oils)” is how trans fats are generally described in the ingredients list.

What’s so bad about trans fats? And aren’t naturally occurring trans fats found in beef and dairy actually good for you, as some contend?

An analysis of studies of both industrial and natural trans fats found that both increased the ratio of LDL to HDL cholesterol that’s associated with increased risk for coronary heart disease.[1] It’s not just the artificially produced trans fats that pose health problems.

Industrial trans fats are the result of adding hydrogen to vegetable oils through hydrogenation that makes them more solid than liquid, thereby extending shelf-life.

The same chemical attributes that cause liquid fats to solidify have similar effects in the body, contributing to hardening of arteries and cell membranes. As noted earlier, they also provide a double-whammy of raising LDL (“bad”) cholesterol while also lowering HDL (“good”) cholesterol.

Trans fats also raise triglycerides, Lp(a) lipoprotein (an LDL cholesterol type implicated in plaque buildup), and damage blood vessel linings (endothelium) that increases inflammation.

In short, trans fats alone create a pretty toxic brew inside the body.

Trans Fats & Pot Bellies

There’s also clinical evidence that trans fat intake equivalent to that found in a typical fast food diet causes what the lead researcher called a…

 “Redistribution of  fat tissue into the abdomen and lead(s) to a higher body weight even when the total dietary calories are controlled’…

“Over six years, male monkeys fed a western-style diet that contains trans fat had a 7.2% increase in body weight, compared to a 1.8% increase in monkeys that ate monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil…

“All that extra weight went to the abdomen, and some other body fat was redistributed to the abdomen…CT scans showed that monkeys on the diet containing trans fats had dramatically more abdominal fat than the monkeys on the monounsaturated fat…

“They deposited 30% more fat in their abdomen” (emphases added).[2]

So, not only do trans fats contribute directly to excess belly fat, but they also redistribute fat we’re already carrying to our bellies. You’d have to do some intense exercising to make up for this kind of belly-bloating anti-nutrient.

Trans fats pervade the American dietGiven the disease risks associated with excess belly fat, this is exactly the kind of food ingredient we need to avoid entirely. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 1% of dietary intake be trans fats, or about 2 grams in a 2,000 calorie a day diet. Most Americans consume over 6 grams a day, however.

A survey in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found 4 out of 5 Americans couldn’t identify 3 sources of these artery-clogging fats, meaning they aren’t likely to reduce their trans fat consumption (see sidebar for sources of trans fat).

Think of it this way: the longer the average shelf-life of your diet, the shorter your own life.

Paying Twice – and Then Some

We pay once to subsidize these disease-generating products via farm subsidies paid with our tax dollars and a second time for the medical bills to treat the conditions they promote. And the second payment is actually two payments – one for own medical bills inflated by treatment costs for diet-induced disease and another for the medical bills of those we subsidize with our tax dollars.

This is a lot of paying for something that could be cut off at the source with more enlightened government policies that have America’s consumers – and taxpayers – first in mind rather than the profit margins of the food producers that lobby politicians and contribute to their political campaigns.

To rub salt in the wound – an apt analogy, to be sure – we not only prop up the profits of the companies that benefit from these misguided government policies, but some of them manage to avoid paying taxes on those inflated profits.  That’s a double-whammy of taxpayer rip-offs – and even a President many Americans consider a “socialist” does nothing about it.

If he were a Socialist, he’d make a pretty damn poor one.

As admirable as First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign against child obesity may be – and again, it has its critics who see “nanny state” in any attempt to improve the public health – it’s far short of needed changes in government policies that continue to subsidize farming practices that are destroying the nation’s health, both physically and fiscally.

Indeed, more would probably be done to improve the nation’s health by doing so than will result from even the best case scenario for Obamacare.

Yes, it’s obvious our politics are beholden – even captive – to the special interests that profit handsomely from continuing to defer on needed reforms of both tax subsidies and tax avoidance schemes.

But public relations measures to encourage voluntary behavioral changes by consumers are no match for the involuntary tax subsidies that create and exacerbate the need for such behavioral changes in the first place.

And we shouldn’t be so gullible as to be distracted by White House celebrity when the focus needs to be placed on the dark hallways and back offices of Congress – where Americans’ best interests are routinely compromised away for the financial benefit of political donors and donees alike.

It’s time we put a stop to it, don’t you think?

[1] Effect of Animal and Industrial Trans Fatty Acids on HDL and LDL Cholesterol Levels in Humans – A Quantitative Review. PLoS One 5(3):e9434, March 2010.

[2] Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center (2006, June 19). Trans Fat Leads To Weight Gain Even On Same Total Calories, Animal Study Shows. ScienceDaily

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