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NYC Finds Rules Restricting Fats Probably Made City Healthier

New York City now has evidence that its rules forcing restaurants to serve less artificial trans fat has resulted in New Yorkers consuming less trans fats in their lunch meals, which will undoubtedly mean that the city is likely getting healthier.

The ban forced restaurants to alter recipes so that foods contained no more than 0.5 grams per serving. The American Heart Association guidelines recommend that people limit trans fat to less than 2 grams a day.

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene did an extensive survey that compared customer meals and receipts for nearly 15,000 lunchtime purchases in 2007, before the ban was instituted, and again in 2009 after the ban went into effect. The findings, reported in Tuesday’s edition of Annals of Internal Medicine, reveal that the amount of trans fat in each lunch sold dropped an average of 2.4 grams, a huge drop. The biggest drop, 3.8 grams, was in hamburger chains, followed by Mexican food and fried chicken chains.

New York’s ban on trans fats has been copied by more than a dozen state and local governments.

Those kinds of numbers add up to a significant reduction in heart risk, according to Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Trans fat is widely considered the worst kind of fat for your heart, much more harmful than saturated fat. Small amounts occur naturally in some meat and dairy products. But much of the trans fat we eat is artificially produced, by hardening liquid oils so they can be used for baking or a longer shelf life.

In 2006, the federal government began requiring that packaged foods list the amount of trans fat contained per serving, a boon for grocery shoppers who could finally tell which processed foods were more or less heart-healthy. But restaurant fare remained a mystery until New York City, led by the health conscious Mayor Michael Boomberg came along and issued a first-of-its-kind rule restricting artificial trans fat in restaurants, forcing them to alter recipes so that foods contained no more than 0.5 grams per serving. The change affected customers beyond New York as big chains like McDonald’s wound up cutting the fat system-wide.

Wootan said she would like to see additional options that make the lower-calorie choice the default. Why shouldn’t the fast-food meal-deal come with fruit, so you have to order the fries separately if you really want them?

“Right now the automatic choice, the easy choice, is the unhealthy option. If it were turned around, many more people would eat healthfully,” she said.

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