Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids found in foods such as fish oil are essential for good health FATS HAVE A BAD reputation. They are related to obesity, heart disease and many other diseases. But not all fats are bad. In Greenland, the native diet consists largely of fish, seal, walrus and whale. They have a high fat diet. But their death rate due to coronary heart disease is extremely low. Researchers believe this is due to their high intake of omega-3 fatty acids. The case is similar in the Greek island of Crete. According to Brian Tomlinson, a professor in the medicine and therapeutics department at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Crete has the lowest death rate in the Mediterranean Basin. This was originally accredited to high olive oil and low saturated fat intake. In fact, people in Crete have a high fat diet. They consume 30 times more fish than people in the United States. They also eat larger amounts of vegetables (including wild plants), fruits, nuts and legumes, most of which are high in omega-3, than in other countries. Andrew Stoll, director of psychopharmacology research at McLean Hospital in Boston and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, wrote in his book The Omega-3 Connection that dietary fats were divided into three main groups: saturated fats, monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. Saturated fats are the fats we need to reduce in our diet. They are found in butter, lard and fats in meat and processed food. Polyunsaturated fats are the good fats. Examples of foods high in polyunsaturated fats include sunflower oil and fish oil. There are two kinds of polyunsaturated fatty acids: omega-3 and omega-6. Both are essential for good health and normal growth. Omega-3 fatty acids have an anti-inflammatory effect and help prevent heart disease, while omega-6 fatty acids lower blood cholesterol. Our bodies cannot manufacture omega-3 or omega-6, so they must be obtained from food. That is why they are called essential fatty acids. In order to achieve good health, omega-3 and omega-6 must both be included in the diet. According to a workshop at the 6th Congress of the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids in 2004 (named 'Assessing Coronary Heart Disease Risk with Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid Biomarker'), there is heightened interest in omega-3 fatty acids due to its potential to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. In the US alone, the Office of Dietary Supplements of the National Institutes of Health is preparing an evidence-based review of the role of omega-3 in coronary heart disease, while the US Food and Drug Administration is evaluating the physiological role of omega-3 in reducing the risk of coronary heart disease. Robert Katz, president of the Omega-3 Research Institute, in Maryland in the US, said research had shown 'omega-3 fatty acid lowers the risk of coronary heart disease'. He said many clinical studies had similar results. It works like this: blood platelets that clump together can form a potentially fatal blood clot in the coronary arteries. Omega-3 helps the blood vessels dilate and reduce this condition. It also reduces triglyceride, a high level of which can raise the risk of a heart attack. And omega-3 protects against heartbeat abnormalities that can cause heart attacks. Omega-3 has anti-inflammatory properties that have been shown to stabilise arterial plaques (deposits inside the artery walls), so the vessels are less likely to rupture and lead to a heart attack. Omega-3 lowers blood viscosity, so the heart does not have to work as hard to pump blood around the body. And it can help with arterial elasticity and lowering blood pressure, which in turn will reduce the risk of a heart attack. Professor Tomlinson suggested the Lyon Diet Heart Study, conducted by French researchers and published in the Lancet medical journal in 1994, was the first and most significant study on the use of omega-3. It showed the only plasma fatty acid associated with an improved prognosis for heart disease - after reducing conventional risk factors - was omega-3. The research involved 605 patients who had survived a first heart attack. Another study involving 4,360 heart attack survivors in a placebo-controlled experiment showed that after a year, total cardiac deaths and non-fatal heart attacks were significantly lower in the group that was given fish oil and mustard oil, both of which contain omega-3 fatty acids. These patients also had lower risk of total cardiac arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats). Fish is the best source of omega-3 fatty acids. The Centre for Science in the Public Interest recommends at least two servings of preferably fatty fish per week. Non-seafood eaters have other options. Omega-3 fatty acids are also found in flaxseed, canola, and soya oils as well as flaxseeds, walnuts and soya beans. 'Taking omega-3 supplements is a good idea,' said Tse Tak-fu, president of the First Global Conference on Cardiovascular Clinical Trials and Pharmacotherapy 2004. 'Taking supplements is good secondary support. It can reduce the dosage of medicine. Taking [a] natural source is better than chemical substances,' Dr Tse said.