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Experts offer the skinny on search for healthy fat

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Although current research suggests that we replace some of the omega-6 fats in our diets with the omega-3s in order to have a healthier balance of essential fats, that's easier said than done.

Diets that are too high in omega-6 fats have been associated with chronic diseases, such as heart disease, arteriosclerosis, diabetes and inflammatory tissue disorders, such as certain types of arthritis. Balancing omega-6 fats with omega-3 fats in the diet, however, have been found to lessen these problems.

As a result of these findings, the American Heart Association now recommends eating omega-3 rich fatty fish, such as sardines, salmon and albacore tuna packed in water, two times per week to increase the amount of omega-3 fat in the diet.

But Bruce Watkins, professor and university faculty scholar at Purdue University, says you can find foods other than fish that also have healthy amounts of omega-3s.

Lean meat, plus fruits and vegetables can also contain omega-3s. "Now there are also omega-3 enriched eggs that you can buy in the supermarket," he says.

In the future, more foods will be available with omega-3s added. Watkins is conducting an experiment of feeding algae that is high in omega-3s to dairy cattle to increase the amount of this good fat in their milk.

"We collected the milk fat and made cheese, butter and yogurt that has high levels of omega-3," he says. "This research is one of the ongoing projects at the Center for Enhancing Foods to Protect Health." Watkins is director of the Purdue-based center.

To reduce the amount of omega-6 fat in the diet, Watkins says to limit fatty meats and vegetable cooking oils, except canola, olive or flaxseed oil.

"Most of the margarine and vegetable spreads that we use have high levels of omega-6s. The cooking oils generally have high levels of omega-6, except canola and flaxseed oil," Watkins says. "So if you are concerned about the amount of fat in your diet, you shouldn't buy tuna fish packed in soybean oil, because the soybean oil would dilute the omega-3s in the tuna."

For those who don't care to eat fish and consider red meat an essential part of every meal, reducing the amounts of omega-6s in the diet takes a bit more effort. Research by Watkins and Loren Cordain, professor of health and exercise science at Colorado State University, and author of "The Paleo Diet" (John Wiley & Sons, 2002), has shown that corn-fed cattle produce meat that is high in omega-6 fat.

But the same study, published in the January issue of the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, reported that wild ruminants and grass-fed beef have an omega-6/omega-3 fat ratio equivalent to that of wild meat, which also is a good source of omega-3 fat.

"This particular paper shows that wild ruminants such as deer, elk or bison have a better omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. We also found that these same healthy fat ratios could be achieved in beef with grass feeding," Cordain says.

Watkins says this type of beef could become an important niche product for some people. "Those who have heart disease or high cholesterol would get benefits from eating this type of beef," he says.

Grass-fed beef, also known as pasture-fed beef, should not be confused with organic beef or free-range beef, says Jo Robinson, author of "Why Grassfed is Best" (Vashon Island Press, 2000) and co-author of the best-selling diet book, "Omega Diet" (HarperCollins, 1999).

"Most all cattle producers, organic farmers included, send their cattle to feedlots to be fattened on grain for market," Robinson says. "The organic farmers just fatten them on organic grain."

Lewis Hunt, a purebred Angus producer in Pleasant View, Tenn., says grass-fed beef has a reputation for being tougher and less flavorful than regular beef. "What I've had before didn't have much fat in it, and so the taste wasn't there," he says. "I didn't think much of it."

But Robinson says modern farming practices are eliminating these problems.

"My guess is that most people who say they've eaten grass-fed beef and didn't care for it probably were served beef from a free-range cow or an old cull cow. This is going to be quite different from modern pasture-fed cattle," she says. "Modern grass-fed beef are raised on very intensely managed pasture. The cattle are moved from pasture to pasture regularly so that they have a steady diet of green grass. This gives them the nutrients they need, and it also allows them to fatten up. This is a very specialized type of farming."

Robinson maintains a Web site that promotes grass-fed meat, The Web site includes a state-by-state listing of grass-fed beef producers that sell to the public.

Writer: Steve Tally, (765) 494-9809;

Sources: Bruce Watkins, (765) 494-5802;

Loren Cordain, (970) 491-7436;

Lewis Hunt, (615) 746-3308

Jo Robinson, (206) 463-4156;

Ag Communications: (765) 494-2722; Beth Forbes,;

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Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

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