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Maybe they'll never join the good-for-you category of broccoli and five-grain bread, but food experts have started to sing the praises of - can you believe it? - mayonnaise and margarine.

The reason is vitamin E, the hot nutrient of the moment. A pile of medical evidence, including a large study in Wednesday's New England Journal of Medicine, suggests this vitamin protects people from heart disease.It turns out the top source of vitamin E in the American diet is margarine. No. 2 is mayonnaise.

These are high-fat foods, and for years, the leading message about eating and health has been a simple one: Cut out fat and cholesterol. Now the reality is beginning to look considerably more complicated.

While it's still too soon to translate the new research findings into carved-in-stone eating advice, they at least raise the possibility that giving up good-tasting creamy Italian dressing for the fat-free kind may not always be the good health choice that it seemed.

The newest piece of evidence is a study showing that women who get lots of vitamin E-rich food cut their chance of heart disease by almost two-thirds. Last month, British researchers reported that daily vitamin E pills seem to reduce heart attacks by 75 percent when taken by people with bad hearts.

The latest study looks at the effect of vitamin E in food alone.

Dr. Lawrence H. Kushi, an epidemiologist from the University of Minnesota, followed 34,486 postmenopausal women with no outward signs of heart trouble. Just 242 died of heart disease during seven years of follow-up.

Diet seemed to play a big role. The researchers divided the women into ive categories, depending on how much vitamin E they consumed in their food. Women who ate the most were 62 percent less likely than those who ate the least to die of coronary heart disease.

Those in the highest consumption group got at least 10 international units of vitamin E per day from food, which is the recommended daily allowance for women. Those in the lowest group got less than five.

Of course, too much high-fat food of any kind is not a good idea, and Kushi noted that the women who benefited didn't overdo it.