Dietary Trans Fats Linked to Aggression

Fran Lowry

March 26, 2012

March 26, 2012 — Consumption of dietary trans fatty acids is associated with irritability and aggression, new research shows.

The cross-sectional study of 945 adult men and women provides the first evidence linking trans-fat consumption to adverse behaviors that affect others. These range from impatience to overt aggression, lead author Beatrice A. Golomb, MD, PhD, from the University of California, San Diego, told Medscape Medical News.

Dr. Beatrice Golomb

"There were studies showing that omega-3 fatty acids were associated with increased agreeableness and reduced impulsivity, and there's evidence that trans fats adversely affect ability to create the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids that are favorable for your brain, and that prompted us to study this further," Dr. Golomb said.

The study was published online March 5 in PLoS One.

Universal Effect

The investigators used baseline dietary information and behavioral assessments to analyze the relationship between dietary intake of trans fatty acids and aggression or irritability.

The participants, who were seen between 1999 and 2004, were not on lipid medications and were without low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol extremes, diabetes, HIV, cancer, or heart disease.

The mean age of the participants was 57 years (range, 45 - 69 years), 68% were male, and 80% were white. The mean trans-fat consumption per day was 3.49 grams (range, 1.02 - 5.96 g/day).

The researchers collected nutrient data using a food frequency questionnaire; they collected information on behavioral acts of aggression toward self, others, and objects, with a variety of validated instruments, including the following:

  • Overt Aggression Scale Modified – Aggression subscale (OASMa)

  • Life History of Aggression (LHA)

  • Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS)

  • Impatience

  • Irritability

They found that participants who ate more trans fats had higher scores on each of these measures.

"This was true for men and for women, across the age groups, people under 40, 40 to 60, and over age 60, and for Caucasians and minorities. In fact, this association across the different measures that we looked at was more consistent than with the other known predictors of aggression that we had access to, which were male, young age, and use of alcohol," Dr. Golomb noted.

Need to Eliminate Trans Fats

Karen Davison, PhD, RD, from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, told Medscape Medical News that this study lends support to the evidence outlining the detrimental effects of artificial trans fatty acids, and also underlines the need to decrease them in the food supply.

"We need to keep in mind that food labels tend to not differentiate between manufactured and natural trans fats. These are chemically different, and research is needed to clarify the roles of each type on behavior," Dr. Davison said.

Olveen Carrasquillo, MD, MPH, chief of the division of general medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine in Florida, pointed out: "Since this was an observational study, one cannot definitively conclude that increased trans-fat consumption causes aggressive behavior. However, there is already substantial data from many other studies that high trans-fat consumption leads to a variety of poorer health outcomes, including heart disease and certain cancers."

Dr. Carrasquillo added that the findings from the study add to the evidence that individuals should try to limit their dietary trans-fat intake.

"The findings also support public health initiatives to limit trans-fat consumption. An example is New York City's initiative, which limits how much trans fat can be used by restaurants."

This research was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Golomb, Dr. Davison, and Dr. Carrasquillo have disclosed relevant financial relationships.

PLoS ONE. Published online March 5, 2012. Full article

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