Some Fats Are Good for You

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

Get the Good Fat

By John Casey
WebMD Feature

Are you avoiding fat in your diet? Then you may be robbing your body of important nutrients called essential fatty acids, which -- though they are fat -- are necessary for your health.

By John Casey
WebMD Feature

Despite the many public outcries that the American diet is too full of fat, it turns out that 90% of us don't get enough of the fats that are good for us. Dietitians and nutritionists call these "essential fatty acids," or EFAs, and these fats are exactly that: essential to good health.

"A balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are vital to cardiac function, joint health, insulin balance, mood stability, skin health, and even gene expression, but our consumption of omega-3 is down 80%, while our consumption of omega-6 has increased several hundred percent," says Artemis Simopoulos, MD, editor in chief of World Review of Nutrition and Dietetics and author of The Omega Diet.

Too much omega-6 can worsen inflammatory diseases and degenerative diseases. In people with arthritis, for example, Simopoulos says a diet heavy in omega-6 rich corn oil can worsen the person's symptoms. Give that same person a diet rich in fish oils, and their symptoms will improve.

The point here, she says, is that our bodies need both omega-3 and omega-6, but you need them in a balance. The ideal ration of the oils is still being investigated, but the vast majority of Americans need lots more omega-3, and much less omega-6.

"Through human history, people hunted and ate fish and ate greens," she says. "Up until 150 years ago, most people had diets that were very balanced in essential fatty acids. That's important because these fats work in opposition to each other. Too much of one or the other can cause a variety of problems in the body. Modern diets are really poor in omega-3."

Get the Good Fat

Since our bodies do not make EFAs, we can only get them in food. Omega-6 is found in corn and some other vegetable oils, such as safflower oil, says Simopoulos. Since modern diets are full of corn oil, we get too much omega-6. Omega-3, on the other hand, is found in fish and fish oil, all green leafy vegetables, flax seed, hemp, and walnuts, and as we don't eat as much of these as we should, we are mostly low in this fat.

"You have to start with the idea that all fats are calorie-dense foods that need to be consumed in moderation," says Elaine Feldman, MD, professor emeritus of medicine at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, who has done extensive research on EFAs. "So it's important to consume healthy fats when you are eating fats. Choose fish at least twice a week, eat leafy vegetables, and cut out as much animal fat and hydrogenated vegetable oil as possible."

Simopoulos says there are three things we should do to get more omega-3 in our diets:

  • Avoid corn, safflower, soy and sunflower oils.
  • Add flax and hemp seed and walnuts in recipes whenever possible. These can be sprinkled on salads and cereals or added to just about any other foods.
  • Eat more fish, especially salmon and other deep-water varieties.

Dump the Trans Fat

"Just as important as getting more good fat in your diet is getting rid of trans fatty acids, which appear on ingredient labels as hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated vegetable oils," says Feldman.

Trans fatty acids are used in the prepared food industry to prolong the shelf life of baked goods like cookies, crackers, and most supermarket peanut butter, to name just a few. The FDA is in the process of considering adding trans fatty acid information to labels on foods so consumers will be more aware that they are eating this fat.

"Trans fats should just be banned by the FDA as soon as possible," says Simopoulos. "These fats are just plain dangerous to good health, and we eat them in just about anything baked or fried item that comes in a package. In Holland, use of these fats has been banned."

One of the worst aspects of trans fatty acids, says Simopoulos, is that the body will take them up more readily than good fat.

"Trans fats interferes with the normal metabolism of EFAs," she says. "So not only do we not get enough of the fats we need, but these unhealthy fats force our body to take up less of what little good fats we do get."

"Mere labeling is insufficient," she says. "In my opinion it's outrageous that we allow these products to be used at all."

Originally published Aug. 12, 2002.

Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD, August 2002 .

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