The Dangerous Effects of Trans Fats in Pregnancy

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The Dangerous Effects of Trans Fats in Pregnancy

Trans fats are known to sabotage heart health since the 90s, yet remain a main ingredient in industrial, processed food. Since nutrition during pregnancy affects the baby´s long-term health and brain development and functions depend on dietary fat intake, we should worry about the impact of trans-fats on the brain of unborn children and the next generation in general.

The last years science is slowly discovering that the diet during pregnancy can have a lasting effect in the health of the baby, often persisting throughout adulthood. Naturally, the foods consumed daily by the expecting mother will provide the primary signals determining the baby´s health. Trans fats are the most commonly used fats in processed food. Trans fats are a main ingredient for breads, pastries, ready meals, desserts and sweet or savory spreads.  Think of processed vegetable oils and frying oils, while margarine and most of the easily spreadable butter-like products contain significant amounts of trans fats as well.

Given the popularity of these products and the fact that brain development and functions depend on dietary fat intake, should we worry about the impact of trans-fats on the brains of unborn children?

Existing evidence, from animal studies, reveals that when trans fats are consumed by pregnant mothers on a daily basis, they are incorporated in the baby´s brain cells, altering behavior and emotional responses. Researchers from Brazil investigated thoroughly the specific topic and found that when pregnant mothers are supplemented with trans fats throughout pregnancy and lactation, the offspring become hyperactive, resembling the behavior associated with bipolar disorder, a recognized psychiatric problem [1], [2]. 

Memory problems and increased emotional reactions after exposure to stressful conditions were also noted. At the same time, maternal consumption of trans fats resulted in significantly more oxidative damage in the brain cells of the babies [3]. On the other hand, fish oil (rich in omega 3s) supplementation has the exact opposite effect:  protection of the baby´s brain from oxidative damage, memory impairment, emotionality and manic behavior.  Babies whose mother ate fish oils during pregnancy and lactation were emotionally stable under stress and their brains were significantly protected from oxidative damage.

Despite the fact that trans-fats have been found to sabotage cardiovascular health since the 90s, they remain the oils of choice for food corporations, thanks to two very desirable properties: they are cheap and have a long shelf life [4]. Products made with trans fats go rancid much later, compared to alternatives made with natural fats. Trans fats go through extensive industrial processing at high temperatures and with different chemical solvents, which remain in small quantities in the final product.  This process is responsible for their unnatural properties and of course, their toxic nature.

The results from the above series of experiments clearly show that trans fats can have a profound negative impact in the new generation if mothers consume them systematically during pregnancy and breastfeeding. We know now that trans fats do not just undermine cardiovascular health.  Like most unhealthy or toxic substances, they affect multiple systems of the body and compromise health in many seemingly unrelated ways.

While several natural fats are essential for life, trans fats are not. They are entirely artificial substances and a convenient solution for food industries, which effectively threaten the physical, mental and emotional wellbeing of the present and the next generation. The truth is that we cannot wait until further research verifies the effects of trans fats in human behavior because such research will never happen. It would be unethical to expose systematically pregnant mothers to proven toxic fats in order to study the impact on their children´s behavior and cognitive functions.  It is only retrospective studies that can reveal part of the problem. If we are going to invest in the wellbeing and health of our children, it is common sense to work with the evidence we have in our hands right now and advice pregnant women to actively avoid foods containing trans fats.


[1] Trevizol F, Roversi K, Dias VT, Roversi K, Barcelos RC, Kuhn FT, Pase CS, Golombieski R, Veit JC, Piccolo J, Pochmann D, Porciúncula LO, Emanuelli T, Rocha JB, Bürger ME. 2015. Cross-generational trans fat intake facilitates mania-like behavior: oxidative and molecular markers in brain cortex. Neuroscience. 286:353-63.

[2] Trevizol F, Dias VT, Roversi K, Barcelos RC, Kuhn FT, Roversi K, Pase CS, Golombieski R, Veit JC, Piccolo J, Emanuelli T, Rocha JB, Bürger ME. 2014. Cross-generational trans fat intake modifies BDNF mRNA in the hippocampus: Impact on memory loss in a mania animal model. Hippocampus.

[3] Pase CS, Roversi K, Trevizol F, Roversi K, Kuhn FT, Schuster AJ, Vey LT, Dias VT, Barcelos RC, Piccolo J, Emanuelli T, Bürger ME. 2013. Influence of perinatal trans fat on behavioral responses and brain oxidative status of adolescent rats acutely exposed to stress. Neuroscience. 247:242-52.

[4] American Heart Association. Trans Fats. Available online at:

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