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The Skinny on Fat: Good Fats vs. Bad Fats

How fats fit into your healthy diet.
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Does Dietary Fat Make You Fat? continued...

"Choosing the right types of dietary fats to consume is one of the most important factors in reducing the risk of developing heart disease," says Tufts University researcher Alice Lichtenstein. DSc.

But while choosing healthier fats is better for your heart, when it comes to your waistline, all fats have about the same number of calories. And cutting the total fat in your diet not only helps you shed pounds, it can also help you live longer and healthier.

"There is a strong association between being overweight and many types of cancer, especially breast cancer among postmenopausal women, and colon cancer," says Colleen Doyle, MS, RD, nutrition and physical activity director for the American Cancer Society.

"Eating less total fat will not directly lower your cancer risk, but it will help you control your weight -- which in turn can reduce your risk of cancer."

Good Fats vs. Bad Fats

Basically, there are two groups of fats: saturated and unsaturated. Within each group are several more types of fats.

Let's start with the good guys -- the unsaturated fats. Unsaturated fats include polyunsaturated fatty acids and monounsaturated fats. Both mono- and polyunsaturated fats, when eaten in moderation and used to replace saturated or trans fats, can help lower cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of heart disease.

Polyunsaturated fats, found mostly in vegetable oils, help lower both blood cholesterol levels and triglyceride levels -- especially when you substitute them for saturated fats. One type of polyunsaturated fat is omega-3 fatty acids, whose potential heart-health benefits have gotten a lot of attention.

Omega-3s are found in fatty fish (salmon, trout, catfish, mackerel), as well as flaxseed and walnuts. And it's fish that contains the most effective, "long-chain" type of omega-3s. The American Heart Association recommends eating 2 servings of fatty fish each week.

"Plant sources are a good substitute for saturated or trans fats, but they are not as effective as fatty fish in decreasing cardiovascular disease," notes Lichtenstein. Do keep in mind that your twice-weekly fish should not be deep-fat fried!

It is best to get your omega-3s from food, not supplements, Lichtenstein says: "Except for people with established heart disease, there is no data to suggest omega-3 supplements will decrease heart disease risk."

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