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Can Some Trans Fats Be Healthy?


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This article is part of a special report on Red Meat. To see the other articles in this series, click here.

Trans fats are one of the few food components that are widely accepted as being unhealthy, and for good reason. Industrial trans fats are created by pumping hydrogen molecules into liquid vegetable oil, changing the chemical structure and causing the oil to become a solid fat.

Trans fats are generally considered to be especially harmful because they raise total cholesterol while lowering HDL cholesterol. However, as usual with conventional nutrition advice, there is far more danger to trans fats than simply the effect they have on cholesterol ratios.

Mark Sisson has written a helpful explanation as to why trans fats are best to be avoided.

However, it may surprise you to learn that many of the foods recommended on a Paleo or whole foods diet contain trans fats as well. Dairy fat and meats from grass eating “ruminant” animals contain significant amounts of trans fatty acids, and grass-fed animals actually have higher levels of these trans fats than grain fed animals. (1) In fact, your grass-fed steak contains about 0.5g-1.4g of trans fat per ounce (28.3g) of total fat. (2)

Does this mean we should avoid all grass-fed animal products, cut out red meat, and only eat fat-free dairy if we want to reduce our risk of heart disease? Not at all! These naturally occurring trans fats in ruminant animal products are not at all harmful to our health, and may actually reduce the development of many different chronic diseases.

Are you eating enough healthy trans fat? Tweet This

CLA: How is it different than industrial trans fats?

Naturally occurring trans fats are formed when rumen bacteria in the stomachs of ruminant animals (cows, sheep, etc.) digest the grass the animal has eaten and form trans-rumenic and trans-vaccenic acid via biohydrogenation of polyunsaturated fats in the grass. Conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA, is a trans-rumenic acid that is found abundantly in grass-fed meat and dairy products, and to a lesser degree in grain-fed products. It is also produced in our bodies from the conversion of trans-vaccenic acid (VA) from those same animal products.

Industrial trans fats have slightly different chemical structures than those trans fats found in beef and butter (specifically, the location of the double bond). CLA also has contains both cis- and trans- bonds, whereas most industrial trans fats have only trans bonds. But these minor differences in structure lead to majorly different effects in the body, as has been shown in many clinical and epidemiological studies. (3)

While industrial trans fats are shown to increase the risk of heart disease, cancer, and obesity, CLA and other trans fats found naturally in animal products are actually thought to decrease the risk of those diseases.

Health benefits of CLA

The major difference between CLA and industrial trans fats is the effect they have on heart disease and atherosclerosis. Several clinical and epidemiological studies have been performed, and meta-analysis of these studies suggests that natural trans fats from animal products are not associated with any increased risk of heart disease. (4) These studies have generally have shown either an inverse or no association between natural trans fat intake and heart disease across multiple geographical locations. (5)

While there have been very few highly controlled clinical trials studying the effects of CLA and VA on heart disease and atherosclerosis, the few that exist also support the conclusion that these natural trans fats may actually reduce the risk of heart disease. In animal studies, CLA has demonstrated potent anti-atherogenic effects, preventing fatty streak and plaque formation in the arteries of rodents by changing macrophage lipid metabolism. (67) While more research in humans is needed, it seems that grass-fed dairy and meat products, high in both CLA and vitamin K2, are some of the best foods you can eat if you’re looking to prevent a heart attack.

CLA may also be helpful in preventing the development and improving the management of type II diabetes.

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In rats, CLA has been shown to improve glucose tolerance and skeletal muscle insulin action. (8) Research has also demonstrated that CLA may reduce hyperinsulinemia by increasing the production of adiponectin, a hormone that can lead to enhanced insulin action and improve insulin sensitivity. (9) Epidemiological evidence suggests that there is an inverse association between CLA levels in adipose tissue and diabetes risk, further supporting the hypothesis that CLA may be involved in healthy insulin regulation. (10)

CLA has even been shown to reduce the risk of cancer, in both experimental and case control studies. (11) It appears to work primarily by blocking the growth and metastatic spread of tumors, controlling the cell cycle, and by reducing inflammation. (12) CLA is able to interrupt the omega-6 PUFA metabolic pathway for the synthesis of eicosanoids, preventing the inflammatory processes that promote cancer development. This may be one reason why dairy consumption has been shown to be inversely associated with certain cancers like breast and colorectal cancer. (1314151617) Based on these animal and human studies, it’s possible that CLA plays a role in cancer prevention.

You may have seen CLA supplements advertised as a weight loss promoter. Some research suggests that CLA can help reduce body fat and promote weight loss in overweight and obese individuals. (18) In a few studies, dietary supplementation of CLA has been shown to increase lean body mass, reduce body fat mass, and improve overall body composition in overweight individuals. (192021) It is thought that CLA may promote improvements in body composition by increasing the breakdown and reducing the storage of body fat. That said, this reduction in body fat is small, so CLA may not cause significant weight loss in the way that supplement advertisers would suggest. But it certainly wouldn’t hurt in your weight loss efforts to increase your dietary CLA.

These studies certainly provide interesting food for thought about CLA’s possible health benefits. That said, I think we need more high quality human research before we can be certain about CLA’s role in human health and disease.

The good news is that all of the foods CLA is present in are beneficial in other ways, so you’ll get enough CLA simply by emphasizing grass-fed meat and dairy products (assuming you tolerate dairy).

Dietary Sources of CLA

So now that you know some of the incredible benefits of natural trans fats like conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and vaccenic acid (VA), how can you increase them in your diet?

As I mentioned earlier, grass-fed dairy and meat are the best sources of CLA and VA. In fact, 100% grass-fed animal products contain from three to five times more CLA than products from animals fed grain. (22) And since CLA is in the fat, the best sources will be fattier cuts of meat, bone marrow, high-fat dairy products like butter and whole milk, and full fat cheeses. Eatwild.com has some great information about CLA in food products, and even has a product directory that allows you to search locally for food made from animals raised on fresh pasture.

Some people may believe that supplementing CLA has the same potential benefits as eating a diet rich in CLA. I disagree, and believe that these supplements could be potentially harmful. Most CLA supplements are derived from linoleic acid in safflower oil, and some studies have shown that CLA supplementation in humans can cause fatty liver, inflammation, dyslipidemia, and insulin resistance. Furthermore, CLA supplements have not demonstrated the beneficial effects seen from dietary intake of CLA in human trials. This may be due to the composition of synthetic CLA supplements; 50% of the product is an unnamed isomer, and is an entirely different fatty acid than the CLA and VA found in meat and dairy products. (23)

It’s always better to get nutrients from food rather than supplements whenever possible, and CLA is no exception. So if you’re looking for a heart-healthy, cancer-preventing diet, be sure to include plenty of grass-fed beef, butter, and cheese. (And don’t worry if your doctor thinks you’re crazy!)

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  1. This article’s conclusions about rTFA seems to be based on 1 (self-described as inconclusive) study of them. I think it’s a bit deceptive that your citations are numbered separately but most point to the same study.

    I would take the conclusions from this article with a grain of salt.

  2. The data on CLA is a complicated one (probably due to different isomers/different chemical forms).

    It has been years since I’ve looked at this, but there is a lot of very concerning data on the adverse effects of CLA e.g. increasing insulin resistance, etc. One of the places I ran across these references was udo Erasmus’s web site.

  3. No one knows how much proportions of Omega 3 and Omega 6 found in grass planted or grown in Tropical Countries (or in the Equator belts region).

    I am not sure – Is there an Asian study on Grass-fed Cows and composition of grass found in Tropical countries?

    Sunlight are strongest for grass found in this (Equator belt) region and how much the rainfall affect grass growing. This in turn will affect the grass-fed cows in term of milk production and meats too.

  4. Personally: I´d would say: No, trans fatts are definitely not healthy. However it depends on WHAT exactly is classified as “trans fatt”.

    I know CLA and its health benefits, however I didnt know it was a trans fatt(well a natural one in this case but still its a trans fatt). However trans fatts produced by heat and chemical reactions like in oil frying, are definitely not healthy in any possible way. I at least know of no study, neither on humans nor animals, that ever found any benefits of chemically reacted trans fatts from oil frying.

    If there by the way is any study that can support any hard evidence in humans(or even animals for at least a hint/a theory) that chemically produced trans fatts have any positive effects on the body I would be glad if anyone could support my with a link or a headline or anything of that research study, it would be very interesting to know, since I believe(nearly) all thinks have or can have pros and cons, depending on dose, duration, DNA, body constitution etc. However I never heard of chemically, by heat, produced trans fatts to have any positive effect on any living human or animal organism.

    Back to CLA: As I said I know of its positive effects, I have taken it a supplement myself for bodybuilding. However in terms of bodybuilding: Useless, not exactly useless but wasted money, you can get the same effect by eliminating all fatts in your food and only use either rapsody or sunflower oil in your diet. Oh of course fatts from fish are an exception, theyre are the only “good animal fatts” a bodybuilder is actually allowed to eat, 1 of the reasons why fish is so extremely popular as a bodybuilder diet.

    It is meaningless to waste money and swalloing CLA pills, you can get the same effect when you add a extra drop of sunflower or raphsody oil, or you can alternative also swallow fish-oil pills which is again more costy then simple diet, but its at least cheaper then CLA and the effect is more or less the same(at least in terms of buidling up fat free muscle mass). However I know there are still people out there that fall for such cheap advertizes, its humbug, effectless and a total waste of money. Also I personally dont like to see people throwing theyre money at the feet of greedy supplement producers and selllers who not only rip off your money but also implant wrong and false hopes in your head, which ultimately leads you to be dissapointed after the “highly promised” results are missing, most people also quit then frustrated, instead of giving a possible and yet good diet and workout plan, and of course patience a chance.

    However im talking to much. Its your money so or so, however I wouldnt recommend wasting money on useless things like CLA for lossing fatt and increasing muscle.

    However back to the point: In term of health effects its a totally different story. From what I know, CLA is said to improve the heart and cardiovascular system like most good fatts, again like all good fatts increases immun system and the body own production of human growth hormone(which helps to decrease fat and increase fatt burning as well as muscle growth, but also growth of bones, sinews, marrow etc which is especially important during the growth which is why children should always have a well balanced diet with lots of good fatts). However besides that, CLA is or at least was(its about 2-3years since I read and studied about CLA) said to also have a positive effect on the bone mass and osteoporosis. However at that time I remember it was only a suggestion, but it appeared that in a small placebo test, those treated with CLA developed a slightly higher bone mass then the placebo group. Scientists suspect an interaction in the vitamin K and calcium management in the bones. However at least at that time, more clinical trials with more test persons were needed as well as further scientific research into that vit. K and calcium process of the human body to.

    That sums up all I know about CLA. As I said this information is at least 2-3years old and may be outdated by todays science.

    I myself also took CLA as I said, in the beginning of my body training, wasted money, every other knowledgable/proffesional and honest bodybuilder will tell you the same, be it natural bodybuilders like me or even steriod users, you will get the same answer.

    Side effects however: I think I remember that back then already a few minor and short term side effects of CLA were listed. I myself only experienced heartburn as the only sideffect and from my knowledge heartburn was 1 of the known side effects of CLA. However not nice but bearable.

    Fatts generally nearly all have pros and cons, except the chemical produced trans fatts. Even saturated fatts do have some minor, but they do have some minor and specially unique effects on our health. Which is why even the bodybuilders recommend at least 10-15% saturated fatts in your diet, which are easily reached by eating even mainly dry chicken or turkey breast(although it only contains about 2% fat, those fatts are still saturated), and dont forget even rapsody or sunflower oil has 3-7% saturated fatts naturally, as does any oil(other oils have actually more saturated fatts, which is why sunflower or rapsody oil are ideal). The same game with fish oils, mostly omega 3-6 fatts, but also fish contains about a few % saturated fatts.

    However at least in small amounts even saturated fatts have theyre benefits(similiar to salt, small amounts are very healthy, large amounts are the absolutely opposite and unhealthy). Saturated play an important role in the production of testosterone in children as well as adults. They also play a key role in the production of white blood cells and T-lymphocells and thus also especially the immune system. Also, despite theyre other side effects, saturated fatts are more easily digestitable then unsaturated fatts(its hard for the human stomach to digest them since its harder to biochemically break up unsaturated fatts by stomach acids and therefore hard to absorb by the intestines).

    Not many, but even saturated fatts are known to have a few benefits besides theyre still existing and true long list of side effects. And also a diet of purely unsaturated fatts isnt the ideal from a health view either, though this would be very hard, its not easy to totally exclude saturated fatts, however it is possible by radical diets though. If you did so your body own human growth hormone levels, your immune system, metabolism etc. would go up and work fine, but it would go hard on your digestive system, and also leave you with lots of human growth hormone but eventually a deficiency of testosterone which isnt good either, neither for males nor even for females(whilst it is true that females have about 10times less testosterone and DHT levels, and about 10times higher estrone and estradiol levels, every female needs a small amount of testosterone and DHT to be able to synthezize insulin, estrogenes, cortison, adrenaline and many other important body hormones. Same goes for males with a much to low estrogene production, also estrogenes like estradiol are needed to produce insulin, adrenaline etc. Which is why every female or male needs a certain amount of the counterpart hormones, If this certain amount is missing, for what reason ever, the whole hormonal production system can become disturbed, and it can lead to many hormonal and neurological problems, in short: Its not healthy, neither for male nor female).

    Time to end this before I make this into a roman. This was more or less to add my 5 cents that: Nearly everything has pros and cons, and this rule especially goes for fatts. And not all “good fatts” are good in excess, as well as not all animal fatts are bad(omega 3-6 and CLA are both in theyre own way one of the healthiest fatts available out there, despite beeing of animal origin). And not all saturated fatts are neccessarily bad, nor do they make up the effect of the whole oil with all its biochemical substances.

    A good is example is olive oil: Despite beeing of vegan/plant origin, olive oil has quite a lot of saturated fatts for a plant oil, 17-20% of the fatts in olive oil are saturated, definitely not good for the arteries as we know. Yet olive oil in several clinical trials and studies has shown to have the strongest protective effect on the heart, arteries and vasculary system. Because its more then only the unsaturated fatts in olive oil that have such a benefit for the heart and arteries, according to that standard: saturated = bad, unsaturated = good model, sunflower oil should have a more beneficial effect on the heart then olive oil, yet it is the other way round.

    Exceptions always exist, you cant classify into purely “good” or “bad” fatts, carbs, protein or food in general. Rather more its important to know which fatt has what effect, and in your diet choose them accordingly to your health condition and also personal needs.

    However as I said I agree with Dr. Kresser that we must first closely look and analyze before judging a “saturated” or “unsaturated” fatt, or as I said nearly everything has pros and cons, some have mor cons, others more pros, and yes some things have no cons at all or no pros at all. Thats how life is, and this rule definitely applies to life as well as diet science and research and science in general.

    • Andre, thank you for posting this. What I learned from it is that you have to take any info you get with a grain of salt and realize that most man made stuff is no good for you. Yes, best to eat a balanced diet from the most natural source as possible.

    • AHAHAA! EUREKA If they are good and naturally, why there is not any butter with only 100% naturally fat trans!! I would like to eat only a stick with trans fat. because they, according what its said, are the best, are good for heart, whereas saturated are not clearly demonstrated as this naturally trans fat. Come on…

      I want 100% fat trans butter!, please.

  5. I got to this article because my search for CLnA brought me here. The article is helpful, and I see alot of info about CLA, but nothing about CLnA (punicic acid). CLnA is Conjugated Linolenic Acid, not to be confused with CLA. CLnA had an even bigger positive impact on body fat composition than CLA in an animal study. Mainly I just wanted to find out how much CLnA grassfed beef has.

    Are you perhaps also referring to punicic acid in the article without naming it? Incidentally, I see pomegranate oil is about 80% punicic acid, which I guess makes it a transfat fruit.

  6. I am very overwhelmed with all this information. I have a liver condition, hep c…I am not on any medication but i am taking 50 vitamin pills per day according to naturopathic doctors I have learned from. I was told that I should not eat any fat but should eat veggies and 1 fruit per day. No meat and no dairy and gluten or yeast or wheat…and I should have at least 75% raw diet Well, I tried that and gave up on it because raw food tastes grose to me, like raw zuchini pasta is just…I threw up. So this information just seems so awesome to me because it is everything I love! dairy, butter, meat, cooked veggies. But is it really good for my liver? Maybe you can help me on this subject. I cannot eat coconut as my liver hurts when I eat it, it is too hard to process….im just tired of searching for truth here because it seems like every time i come across a diet everyone says it is the THING! I would like to hear someone’s expert opinion on liver and this diet as I need something that is easy for my liver to process. Thank you

    • Julia, if you are overwhelmed then you should start by reading the entirety of Chris Kressers 9 Steps To Perfect Health

      • Thank you for your reply David….glad to see someone replied… I have read that article. Some things that stood out for me were ‘if you have a healthy metabolism’. I do not think I do because of my disease… I dont know if I do, I would like to think I do have a healthy metabolism but with this disease nothing seems healthy in my body! I also saw that coconut was in the pyramid as the second most important consuming agent and I cant do coconut. Unless Christ replies I am guessing here this diet is just not for me. ):

        • Julia — Hep C is one of the sham diseases. Not to say there isn’t something wrong with your liver.

          So these steps I recommend:
          1) Stop taking all meds related to your condition. The next few steps change your diet.
          2) Stop eating all forms of fructose and drinking all forms of alchohol. These two substances are primarily processed by your liver — and if your liver does not have a use for them, it converts them into fat. There is no glycogen pathway unlike with glucose. FYI sugar is 1/2 fructose. Please see Lustig’s video on Sugar: the Bitter truth.
          3) Stop eating all carbs — yes, step 2 already restricts you, but step 2 bans those things that affect the liver directly. Carbs (glucose, starches) still effect the liver, but because they can be converted to glycogen they don’t do it as fast. They also can be absorbed by your muscles. But eventually, some will get processed by your liver.
          4) eat protein — .5 x your lean body weight. So if you are supposed to be a 120 lb woman, eat 60g protein per day.
          5) eat fat. Eat fat at 1.5 – 2 times the amount of protein (about 120g’s) This makes your total calories about 1300.
          6) Do no eat after 7:00. This will allow your body to regenerate by removing damaged cells and replacing them with good cells. The first occurs because of your mini-fast. the second occurs because of your deep sleep when you sleep on an empty stomach.

  7. Hi Chris!

    Unfortunately good food, water, and medicine is under attack! Denmark has a fat tax, beef taxes are proposed, cannabis is taxed in Washington now, and Portland, Oregon’s water supply may soon be fluoridated.

    Cannabis-infused butter is perhaps the world’s most taboo (and taxed) health food.

    For more information, see this latest article in my budding series – ‘MariNoia’:


    I do not think that cannabis use is completely without risk, but I do think it has a very good cost-benefit ratio and is truly worth consideration.


    John (THCalm Canary)

  8. Another source of CLA is from our own beneficial gut flora. Bifidobacteria, especially Bifidobacterium breve, produces CLA as a byproduct of soluble-fiber fermentation. Anyone who argues that CLA is harmful must explain why our beneficial gut flora produces it.

  9. “(And don’t worry if your doctor thinks you’re crazy!)” — I told my doctor I put grass-fed unsalted butter in my coffee and she strongly advised me against this because it will “rasie my cholesterol” and as all know high cholesterol causes heart disease…

  10. “100% Grassfed”…
    What happens to CLA when the farmer “grain finishes” his livestock, say for 3 weeks, and then say for 6 weeks (which seems to be the norm for many “grassfed” animals)? Is it even worth the extra price I am paying?

  11. Chris,

    Unrelated to your current article . . . do you have a dosage recommendation for the Green Pasture’s CLO/butter blend? My wife and I are 30 with no major health issues. She has some keratosis pilaris, but that’s about it. Also, would you recommend giving some to children? I’ve got a one year old son. Finally, any good suggestions on how to take the gel (cinnamon tingle flavor) to avoid the wretched taste?

    • Disregard my question about dosage, I found your article on CLO.

      I am still interested in your recommendations on fish oil supplementation for children. I read that Robb Wolf recommends DHA only for kids under 3. Is any supplementation necessary if they are breastfeeding and mom is supplementing with CLO and/or DHA?

  12. Hey Chris,

    Is there anyway sardines could have trans fat? I discontinued eating after I saw the label claiming a gram of trans. Supposedly the only other ingredient is a chipotle sauce and it seems to be water based (not oily at all).

    • Thank goodness the profit margins of the dairy farmers are currently low enough for the farmers to stop importing Palm Kernel Extract at the moment. I’m drinking organic non-homogenised whole milk from just organics in Chch. Unfortunately it is pasteurised. Met a goat milker today who can supply raw milk but he lives past Lincoln…

  13. “So now that you know some of the incredible benefits of natural trans fats like conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and vaccenic acid (VA), how can you increase them in your diet?”

    Actually, I find the benefits of CLA to be quite credible! 😉

    Pomeganate seed oil is 70% punicic acid CLnA (congugated linolenic acid) which has the same 9cis 11trans configuration as ruminant CLA as well as a 13trans double bond. It has beneficial effects itself, and some is converted in the body to 9cis 11trans CLA.
    It has many of the effects of CLA and there are animal studies showing reduction of colitis.


  14. Excellent article Chris and a timely one at that. I met up with an old friend through a charity walk yesterday where we were discussing exactly this. I promised to send him the info. Here it is, and so well explained! Thankyou.

  15. Great article chris! Thanks! Just wanted to mention another great source of polyunsaturated conjugated fatty acids (CLA is a CFA) is pomegranate seed oil.

    A big reason industrial trans fats are so bad is that the body mistakes them for saturated fat and uses them in cell membranes as saturated fat, which then causes chaos in cell metabolism. Your cells are only as healthy as your cell membranes and if the cell membrane is compromised, cellular function is compromised. If cellular function is compromised, health is compromised.

    Trans fats are so bad that the FDA required labeling of trans fats back a few years ago. It has to be really bad for the inept, corrupt, corporate loving FDA to require such labeling. However, please realize that the FDA allows manufacturers to claim “zero trans fats” or “no trans fats” as long as there is less than 1/2 gram per service size. In other words, just because a product says “no trans fats” or has a big “0” on the “trans fat” content part of the label, does not mean it has no trans fats. So you may be consuming a significant amount of industrial trans fats from a product that claims “no trans fats”. Be aware, if the produce has hydrogenated oils, it most likely has trans fat content. This is just another shortcoming of the inept FDA, where they allow manufacturers to get away with deceiving the public.

  16. It’s so funny when I tell people about how I eat so much beef and butter. They think I’m going to have a heart attack right in front of them. The conventional wisdom about the flawed lipid hypotheses is so entrenched. It would be so much harder to ditch gluten grains and legumes if these tasty high fat foods weren’t still on my plate. I was lucky enough to get a whole calf in my freezer, complete with some boney cuts, liver, kidneys, heart and tongue. I KNOW he was finished on grass because I had him on my place for his last three months. I also eat a lot of Organic Valley Pasture Butter. Costly, but so goooood. I was more worried about my heart/vascular condition about two years ago before I started this diet. Back then I was feeling bad things in my chest, up my neck, and down my left arm. All gone now.

  17. Hi Chris,

    Just wanted your thoughts on a product…. I usually make my own almond milk at home but sometimes I can’t be bothered and would rather buy milk from the shops. I am yet to try raw milk… not even sure how I would get it here but anyway I came across a milk buy Thomas Organic Creamery which is local to Michigan and from Jersey Cows raised that are pasture fed. The bottle says it is non-homogenised and vat pasteurised at low temp.

    Is this a suitable substitute for my home made almond milk when I need some milk?

    • First and foremost, make sure you can tolerate dairy. As for the product, Jersey cows make the healthiest dairy, and the fact that this product is also pasture raised (though not sure how this is possible in the winter, unless the cows come from the south), non homogenized, and low temp vat pasteurized means this product is among the best commercial dairy you can buy at the store. Weston price foundation just did a good article on the differences b/w raw/pasteurized & non/homogenized effect on the body. I would still suggest to search the internet for raw dairy sold in your area but usually this involves becoming part of a cow share which might increase costs. Compared to commercial almond milk which has several bad ingredients, this company’s Jersey milk seems like a good substitute for your homemade almond milk.

      • Hi Michael,

        Thanks for the reply. I’ll have to check out the WAP article. This milk is pretty pricey so I’ll probably stick to my home made almond milk most of the time and keep this as a back up. You’re right about commercial almond milk having bad ingredients which is why I make my own.