Trans fats are low-hanging fruit for nutrition researchers because they have no redeeming nutritional qualities and damage our arteries leading to more heart attacks and strokes. In fact, the US Food and Drug Administration moved last year to completely ban the artificially-manufactured fat — found in pie crusts, microwave popcorn, and other foods with partially hydrogenated oils — from our food supply.
Thus, it's not too much of a surprise to see them associated with yet another health ill: impaired memory. Researchers compared trans fat consumption among 1,000 healthy men with no signs of heart disease and found that those who consumed the most performed worse on word memory tests.
The findings were presented Tuesday afternoon at the American Heart Association meeting in Chicago.
"Trans fats were most strongly linked to worse memory, in young and middle-aged men, during their working and career-building years," said Dr. Beatrice Golomb, study leader and professor of medicine at the University of California-San Diego.
In the study, participants completed a dietary questionnaire, from which the researchers estimated daily trans fat consumption and then were shown about 100 word cards. They had to state whether each word was new or a word duplicated from a prior card.
The researchers found that men who ate the most grams of trans fats each day recalled 11 fewer words compared to those who ate the least trans fat. (The average number of words correctly recalled was 86.)
While the researchers couldn't prove that high trans fats in the diet led to memory impairment, they took into account other factors like age, education level, depression, and ethnicity that may have confounded their results.
Trans fat consumption was not associated with memory impairment in post-menopausal women who were also studied by Golomb and her colleagues. She said she plans to study younger women in followup research to see whether the memory effects linked to trans fats extend to them.
"Foods have different effects on oxidative stress and cell energy," Golomb said in a statement. Trans fats could cause more of this stress on cells leading to more inflammation and artery damage. "In a previous study, we found chocolate, which is rich in antioxidants and positively impacts cell energy, is linked to better word memory in young to middle-aged adults."
She's a big fan of eating modest amounts of dark chocolate daily and told me in a previous interview that she considers it a "plant food." Her advice if you're a chocolate lover: eat a few squares of dark cacao-rich chocolate every day and avoid the chocolate doughnut. "I think it's fair to call chocolate a real food in the sense that it contains real plant-based nutrients, as opposed to packaged cookies or pastries that are filled with artificial flavorings," she said. And, sometimes, trans fats.