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Should We Ban Trans Fats in All Restaurants?

By Kristin Sidorov
In 2008, a ban on trans fats in restaurant food took effect in New York City. The first of its kind, the regulation prohibits any restaurant from serving items with more than 0.5 grams of trans fat, a particularly dangerous fat that has been shown to drastically increase the risk of coronary heart disease. The ban, while protested initially, has revealed some shockingly healthy progress for the city’s residents.

The ban shed light on just how much trans fat was lurking in our everyday foods, and how blissfully unaware most of us were to its toxic effects. It turns out that while scant amounts of trans fats are found naturally in some dairy and meats, most of what can be found in our foods are artificially produced in the form of hardened, hydrogenated fats, and oils. Mmm, right?

In 2006, the federal government began requiring that all packaged foods list trans fat amounts contained per serving. It was a good start—after all, consumers should know what they’re eating—but why were restaurants off the hook? More than one third of the calories Americans consume come from outside the home, and when dining out, it’s nearly impossible to determine exactly how many calories are in a meal, let alone what they contain.

New York City’s decision (spearheaded by Mayor Michael Bloomberg) to take the federal government’s regulation one step further affected every restaurant in the city, including some local franchises of very popular national chains. Its goal was ambitious, but four years later, there’s proof that it’s working.

A recent study conducted by the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene compared the lunches of New Yorkers eating at fast-food chains in 2007 (before the ban went into effect) and in 2009 after the ban was in place. Diners’ meals slimmed down by 2.4 grams of trans fat less per serving. The study also revealed that diners and restauranteurs alike are much more aware of trans fat these days, and showed an 86 percent increase in healthier menu options.

No one is claiming that these kinds of regulations can somehow make junk foods healthy. Ultimately, diets are (and should be) a personal decision. But being informed about what’s in the foods we eat is more important than we previously realized, and this research proves to be a promising step towards educated, healthier choices.

And even though the study wasn’t long enough to actually track health gains—for example, a reduction in heart disease or obesity—health professionals are hopeful they will one day see them. The implications that this step in educating consumers has for the future of heart disease could be huge.

So far, 15 other jurisdictions have taken New York’s lead, and some chain restaurants, like McDonald’s, have changed their trans fat policies worldwide to adhere to the policy. While it’s by no means a fix-all, it shows that a with a little help, healthy choices can also be easy ones—especially when we’re given the information we need to make them.

Bloomberg’s next controversial public health proposal is to ban the sale of super-sized sugary sodas over 16 ounces. “Six years ago, naysayers called the transfat ban ‘a misguided attempt at social engineering by a group of physicians who don’t understand the restaurant industry,'” he said in a statement. “This week, we saw evidence that the ban is reducing New Yorkers’ fat intake and potentially saving lives. Six years from now, hopefully we are celebrating a reversal in the obesity epidemic currently killing 5,800 New Yorkers a year and due to our plan to limit the size of sugary beverages and other anti-obesity initiatives.”

The initiative is up for a vote in September with many high-profile celebrities (Spike Lee, Jamie Oliver) and public health officials supporting it.

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