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Good Fat, Bad Fat

The right fat can actually improve your heart health.
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WebMD Feature

Americans have become downright fat-phobic.

And with good reason: Scientists have pointed to fat as a possible cause for diseases ranging from heart disease to obesity to some cancers. In response, store shelves are now lined with fat-free potato chips, luncheon meats, and cookies, all concocted so people can literally have their cake and eat it too.

But being fat-healthy isn't just about avoiding the saturated fats found in meat and tropical oils. It's about making sure you're eating a good balance of the right kinds of fats. "It's not about good fats/bad fats, but consuming fats in the right amounts that counts," says dietitian Elizabeth Somer, M.A., R.D., author of The Nutrition Desk Reference.

Scientists have found that a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids can help prevent heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, and even ease arthritis pain. On the other hand, people who have diets that are low in omega-3s and high in another fatty acid, omega-6 -- the typical American diet -- have higher rates of heart disease. "It's not so much that omega-6s are bad for us, it's just that the ratio is out of whack," Somer says.

Hanging in the Balance

An examination of other cultures offers some evidence of this. Japanese, European, and Mediterranean diets typically have two-to-one ratios of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, says Artemis Simopoulos, M.D., co-author of The Omega Diet. In the United States, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in diets is about 20 to 1 -- much too high for a healthy lifestyle, leaving Americans susceptible to heart disease, obesity, autoimmune diseases, and diabetes. "Since 25% of the people in this country don't eat any fish, and few people eat green leafy vegetables, you can see why we have a lopsided ratio," Simopoulos says. At a conference in April 1999 at the National Institutes of Health, Simopoulos and other experts from around the world reached a consensus that a ratio greater than four to one is unhealthy.

Achieving a Healthy Ratio

So just how do people stack the odds -- or the ratio -- in their favor? It's as simple as cutting down on foods that are rich in omega-6s and eating more foods abundant in omega-3s. That means avoiding foods fried in vegetable oils such as corn and safflower, and eliminating processed foods, many of which contain omega-6s. Other sources of omega-6 fatty acids include meats, seeds, nuts, and grains. At the same time, boost the amount of omega-3s in your diet by eating more cold-water marine fish, such as salmon and mackerel, as well as green leafy vegetables. And use canola oil instead of vegetable oil for cooking.

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