The Fat You Need To Eat

by Jeanne Rhodes

As a result of many nutrition studies, researchers are now questioning the most agreed-upon nutrition doctrine of recent years - cutting back on fat. Studies are finding that the type of fat in the diet is more important than the amount of fat.

To avoid health and weight problems Americans have turned to low fat diets, which in turn may decrease intake of the essential fatty acids (EFAís). These fatty acids are called ďessentialĒ because you cannot live without them and your body cannot make them - you must get them from food.

Extremely low fat diets may actually increase body fat and they also have the potential to kill you over the long term. To balance the one-sided view on fats, it is critical to consider essential fatty acids (EFAís).

Like the air we breathe, EFAís are essential to life. In fact, older nutrition literature referred to them as vitamin F. The EFAís are essential because:

* We cannot live without them.
* The body cannot make them from other substances.
* An adequate supply must come from food or supplements.
* A deficiency results in a gradual deterioration and ultimately in death.
* An increase in intake will reverse the symptoms of deficiency.

EFAís have a positive impact on every process in our bodies from healthy cardiac function and cholesterol to depression and weight control. Life without them is impossible. When dietary intake is EFA-poor, you can expect a diversity of health problems.

The two groups of essential fatty acids are the omega-3ís and the omega-6ís. A healthy balance of these two is critical for health. Nutrition experts recommend a ratio of 4:1, for omega-6 to omega-3. The typical American diet is high in omega 6ís with a ratio somewhere near 20:1 - a ratio that is fertile ground for major diseases and often for weight problems.

Artemis Simopoulos, M.D., a leading proponent of correcting this dietary imbalance, has devoted much of her career to studying omega-3 rich diets - what we all should be eating, she argues. A number of studies support her thesis including The Lyon Diet Heart Study (The Lancet, 1994). The study compared heart attack survivors on the American Heart Associationís low fat diet versus an omega-3-rich diet. Those on the omega-3-rich diet had a 76% lower incidence of second heart attack, heart failure, stroke and death from cardiovascular disease.

An omega-3-rich diet is close to the diet we evolved on, according to Dr. Simopoulos, president of the Center for Genetics, Nutrition, and Health in Washington, DC, and a former chairperson of the nutrition coordinating committee of the N.I.H.

If you want to improve your balance of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, the following are easy-to-adopt dietary changes you can make:

* Add omega-3 rich foods to your diet. These include fatty fish (tuna, salmon, trout, herring, mackerel, etc.) Four servings per week are recommended.

* Eat less saturated fat and cholesterol. Choose lean meats, low-fat dairy products and skinless chicken and turkey. Avoid tropical oils (coconut, palm, and palm kernel oils).

* Avoid vegetable oils high in omega-6 fatty acids - corn, peanut, sunflower, soybean, and cottonseed oils. Instead, use olive or a mixture of olive and canola oils.

* Eat seven or more servings of vegetables a day - especially raw and green leafy ones and raw fruit.

* Avoid or limit trans fatty acids - margarine, vegetable shortening, commercial baked and fried foods, and most prepared snacks, mixes, and convenience foods.

Dr. Simopoulos recommends 1000 mg. of fish oil supplements daily for those who donít like fish. Larger amounts have been useful in clinical studies of rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, high triglycerides, cancer, etc.

Our dietary meats, eggs, and processed foods are contributing factors in the health-poor balance of EFAís in the American diet. By changing the feed of our livestock, the balance of omega 3ís to omega 6ís will improve. A good example:

Greek eggs, because of the kinds of feed for their chickens, have an excellent ratio of omega 6ís to omega 3ís of 1:1 - USDA eggs have a ratio of 20:1. The omega-3 rich (Greek) eggs donít raise cholesterol and also help keep blood pressure under control.

One development to watch: A few companies now offer high-omega-3 eggs. Research is currently underway to alter the feed of our livestock (cattle, sheep, and pigs) to achieve a more healthful balance of essential fatty acids in the meats we eat. Also, replacing oils or other fats with olive and/or canola oil in food recipes can be beneficial.

One word of caution. These findings are not to be interpreted as a green light to eat a high fat diet. The olive and canola oils recommended are still 100% fat and as such are to be used in small amounts and to replace saturated and trans fats in the diet.

Rhodes, B.A., M.A., is a Nutritionist, Wellness Lifestyle Strategist, Author, and Director of Rhodes Preventive Health Institute in Hagerstown.