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From The Desk Of Clarence Bass

AHA Raises Fat Intake Limit, Adds "Good" Fat

"The times, they are a changin," says the Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter (July 2001). After being a longtime defender of the 30-percent-or-less fat rule, the American Heart Association earlier this year put out new guidelines saying that a diet containing as much as 35 to 40 percent of calories as fat can be "perfectly compatible with heart health." (When I checked the AHA website, the change was not reflected; the 2000 guidelines with the 30 percent limit was the latest post. Not surprisingly, the change has apparently been made without fanfare.)

That doesn’t mean T-bone steak and hot fudge sundaes are now in favor, of course. The restrictions on saturated fat and trans fatty acids combined remain at 10 percent of total calories. Importantly, the AHA recommends that those who are trying to lose weight stick to the 30-percent limit. "Diets high in total fat are associated with excess body weight," writes Tufts.

New Emphasis on Omega-3s

The major change is in unsaturated fats, and not just any form. Polyunsaturated fatty acids of a particular kind are recommended: Omega-3 fatty acids are favored over omega-6s.

We already get plenty of omega-6 fatty acids, usually in the form of cooking oils, including sunflower and corn oil, found in many processed foods. Most of us, however, don’t get nearly enough of the omega-3 fats found in the highest concentrations in fish and to a lesser degree in green leafy vegetables, nuts, flax seeds, canola oil and soy products. According to the Tufts Letter, we eat about 10 times as much omega-6 as omega-3. And they say that’s not good.

The 10-to-1 ratio is relatively new in human history. "When humans were still hunter-gatherers who foraged for their food rather than raised everything on farms and ranches," says Tufts, "our consumption of omega-6s and omega-3s was divided roughly down the middle." That’s because the wild game hunted by ancient man and the plants they gathered were much higher in omega-3 fats than our domesticated animals and cultivated crops.

"What is being discovered," says Tufts, "...is that a shift away from omega-3s and toward omega- 6s increases the risk of dying from heart disease; makes arthritis pain worse; and may have something to do with the development of depression."

The Benefits

Omega-3 fatty acids appear to make blood cells less likely to clot, which reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke. As I found out from personal experience a few years back (see articles 18 and 20 above, and Challenge Yourself), they also play a role in the lowering unhealthy blood fats called triglycerides. And, says Tufts, omega-3 fats "stabilize the heart’s muscle cells and thereby prevent life-threatening arrhythmias, or erratic heartbeats."

In addition, omega-3s are thought to suppress inflammation, which plays a major part in arthritis. Finally, Tufts says, research suggests that omega-3 fats reduce the risk of depression by keeping "cell membranes in the brain more fluid so that messages set in motion by mood-lifting brain chemicals such as serotonin have an easier time making their way in."

How to Change

Sounds good. How can we increase our intake of omega-3s? Here’s what the AHA website says about that: "Food sources of w-3 fatty acids include fish, especially fatty fish such as salmon, as well as plant sources such as flaxseed and flaxseed oil, canola oil, soybean oil, and nuts. At least 2 servings of fish per week are recommended to confer cardioprotective effects."

The Cooper Clinic recommends a fat intake of 20 to 30 percent. The last computer analysis they did of my diet, in June 2000, showed my percentage to be 25 percent. My fat intake is actually somewhat lower, because the technician misinterpreted several items on my food record. My actual fat intake is probably closer to 20 percent, which I believe is about right for athletes and people interested in optimum health and fitness. The guidelines are, of course, addressed to the average person, who may be willing to keep fat intake under 40 or even 30 percent, but would say "forget it" to anything lower.

As the AHA suggests, 40 percent is too high if you are trying to lose weight -- or look like an athlete. A gram of fat still has twice as many calories as a gram of carbohydrate or protein. We still need to be careful about our fat intake. There’s no changing the fact that eating too much fat will make us fat.

The important thing is to make sure you get enough omega-3 fat. Do that -- and eat a balanced diet of whole foods -- and the rest of the essential fat you need will take care of itself. It goes without saying, of course, that saturated fats should be avoided. That also goes for trans fatty acids, of course. The Cooper Clinic found my saturated fat intake to be about four percent and set my trans fatty acid intake at a negligible one gram. My ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s is 14 to5, not quite the one-to-one of ancient man, but much better than the typical – and unhealthy – 10 to 1.

There’s "good news here," says Tufts: "You might like the novelty of including some more fish in your diet, sprinkling some nuts on salads, or sautéing some dark green leafy vegetables in canola or olive oil – enough so that you won’t mind cutting back on a few of the less desirable items in your usual food repertoire."

That’s exactly right. If you try it, you’ll probably like it – and be healthier in the bargain. I wouldn’t eat any other way.

Ripped Enterprises, 528 Chama, N.E., Albuquerque, New Mexico 87108, (505) 266-5858, e-mail:  cncbass@aol.com, FAX (505) 266-9123, Office hours, 8-5, M-F, Mountain time.

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