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A Fish-Friendly Diet

Posted On May 7, 2018

The importance of consuming fish and their omega-3 fats weekly

By EDNA COX RICE, RDN, CSG, LDN

Go fish at your local market, at least twice a week.  

Eating a diet that includes fish twice a week provides plenty of benefits and may reduce the risks of several diseases, especially when it comes to heart disease and brain health.   

On the menu in restaurants and in some homes, fish is the top selection as the most nutritious dish around. Fish and other seafood are a very important part of a healthy diet as a major source of high quality, lean protein, omega-3 fats, Vitamin D, calcium, zinc and iron.

Heart Health 

Regular fish consumption is associated with a lower risk of fatal heart disease. Omega-3 fatty acids protect the heart against the development of erratic and potentially deadly cardiac rhythm disturbances. They also lower blood pressure and heart rate, improve circulation and blood vessel function. Omega-3s play a role in preventing the formation of cholesterol, increase HDL (healthy) cholesterol and lower triglycerides.

Brain Food 

The brain is heavily concentrated in omega-3 fats and requires this nutrient to maintain health and function.  Fish provides high-quality omega-3s that aid in cognitive development and improve cognitive function.  Routinely eating fish may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and related side effects connected to Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and bipolar disorder.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids 

These polyunsaturated fats are not newcomers to the food supply. They have been around since the beginning of time.  Unfortunately, the trend has been to move away from omega-3s, which has led to a drastic increase in saturated fat, trans fats, and omega-6 fatty acids. Although omega-6 fats are polyunsaturated and essential in small amounts, like saturated and trans fats they promote inflammation and play a significant role in the rising rate of inflammatory disorders. 

Omega-3s are essential: the body does not produce them and must rely on dietary sources.  These fatty acids are converted into hormone-like substances, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which promote the anti-inflammatory process in the body.  Fish is the best option for providing the most omega-3s per serving.  Wild-caught salmon offers the highest levels of omega-3s, while farmed salmon contain higher levels of omega-6 fats and may contain high levels of PCBs and dioxins.

Vitamin D 

Recent research clearly shows Vitamin D is a much bigger factor in health than previously thought.  Vitamin D aids in lowering the risk of osteoporosis, fractures, and major cancers.  New findings show wild Alaskan salmon, especially sockeye salmon, is the best source of Vitamin D available.  One cup of milk provides 100 I.U. of vitamin D; just 3.5 ounces of sockeye provides 600 to 700 I.U. of vitamin D.  Farmed salmon has 25% as much Vitamin D as wild-caught fish.

Fish Friendly Choices 

The most powerful sources of omega-3 fatty acids are oily fish, such as salmon, especially wild-caught sockeye salmon, sardines, herring, anchovies, black cod (sable fish), mackerel, and lake trout.  Other fish and seafood including tuna, halibut, pollock, shrimp, scallops, and other shellfish provide high quality protein and are still a good source of omega-3s, but not as rich as oily fish.  Breaded fish, fish sticks and fast food fish are devoid of the omega-3 fats.  They add the undesirable omega-6 fats as well as saturated and trans fats due to the breading and frying process.

What’s the Catch? 

While eating fish and seafood offers plenty of health benefits, there are some cautionary points to consider.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises avoiding shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish (sometimes referred to as golden bass or golden snapper) because of their high levels of mercury.  This is an especially important recommendation for women who are pregnant, who or are nursing, and young children.

Tuna is one of the most frequently eaten fish.  Mercury levels in tuna has been and continues to be a concern.  Fresh tuna steaks generally contain higher levels of mercury than canned tuna.  Canned, light tuna contains less mercury than albacore tuna.  The EPA and FDA advise consuming up to 12 ounces of fresh or canned tuna weekly.  Despite the mercury concerns, tuna is full of omega-3 fats, vitamin D and lean protein.

Imported seafood such as shrimp, scallops and lobster may contain unwanted additives. Domestic seafood contains fewer additives and contaminants, which are reflected in the nutrition profile and flavor.  Shellfish and crustaceans are excellent sources of omega-3 fats, lean protein, B complex vitamins, and are low calorie.  Seafood is versatile and may be prepared using a variety of healthy methods.

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