Fish for Health

To lower the risk of coronary heart disease, the American Heart Association recommends that we eat fish at least twice a week. Besides containing protein and other nutrients such as vitamin D and selenium, fish contains omega-3 essential fatty acids, which play an important role in heart health and in proper functioning of the immune and neurological systems.

What are omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs)? As their name implies, EFAs are a group of polyunsaturated fats critical for health. They must be part of the diet, however, since the body cannot produce them on its own. The two families of EFAs are omega-3s and omega-6s. In particular, oily cold-water fish, such as salmon, sardines, herring, and mackerel (except for king mackerel), have been found to be excellent sources of omega-3s. They are also low in mercury and PCB contamination.

Recent studies have found fish consumption to be associated with lower blood pressure and heart rate and reduced triglyceride levels. There is also evidence of positive effects on both mood and cognitive functioning. For maximum benefits, it is advisable to eat a variety of different seafood. Keep in mind as well that canned salmon and sardines eaten with the bones provide a major source of calcium.

Those who do not like the taste of fish may ingest fish oil in liquid form or capsules. Most recently, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported on a study, conducted at the University of South Dakota, that explored whether the body processes fatty acids from fish oil capsules in the same way it does fish. Dr. William Harris and his team found that fish oil capsules and fatty fish do an equally good job of enriching the blood and other body tissues with healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Nevertheless, the researchers encouraged people to eat fresh fish whenever possible since it contains proteins and minerals that are important for health but not found in capsules. Since fish oil products have blood thinning effects, individuals on blood-thinning medications should consult their physicians before using these products.

When buying a fish oil product, check the label to confirm it has been molecularly distilled for mercury and other contaminants. Check the expiration date as well. For optimum health benefits, prepare fresh fish by poaching, baking, or steaming, rather than frying. Canned fish has the same health benefits as fresh but contains added salt. Therefore, choose more fresh fish if you’ve been advised to reduce your sodium intake. Finally, when it comes to salmon, wild is preferable to farmed. Wild salmon consume a natural diet and therefore contain higher amounts of omega-3s; their bodies also harbor lower levels of contaminants.