A Fish-friendly Diet

Posted On May 8, 2018

What’s the catch?

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.  Unfortunately, only about one-third of Americans eat seafood once a week, while nearly half eat it only occasionally or not at all.  

On the menu in restaurants and in some homes, fish is the top selection as the most nutritious and delicious 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. But some people simply do not enjoy fish. The generally low consumption is likely caused by perceptions about cost, access to stores that sell fish, and lack of experience about how to prepare fish.

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, lean protein and omega-3s that aid in cognitive development and improve cognitive function.  Routinely eating fish may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by protecting the brain from shrinkage and deterioration.  Omega-3s alleviate the 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.  Research confirms that saturated fats and trans fats are harmful and a high consumption of these culprits is associated with an increase in the risk of developing certain chronic diseases.  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. 

The typical American diet consists of 15 to 25 times more omega-6 fats than omega-3s due to overconsumption of meats, vegetable oils (such as corn, safflower, and cottonseed) commonly found in processed foods and fast foods.  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. Vitamin D; just 3.5 ounces of sockeye provides 600 to 700 I.U. Vitamin D.  Farmed salmon has 25% as much Vitamin D as  wild-caught fish.

Too Fishy 

For non-fish eaters or those who do not eat oily fish at least twice a week, plant-based omega-3s, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), can be converted into the anti-inflammatory substances EPA and DHA.  Dietary sources of ALA include walnuts, canola and flaxseed oils, ground flaxseeds, and eggs from grain-fed chickens.  Since the body is not very efficient converting ALA to EPA and DHA, individuals who avoid fish should consider taking a fish oil supplement that offers 500 to 1000 mg EPA and DHA to minimize inflammation. Look for molecularly-distilled products certified to be free of heavy metals and other contaminants.

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.

So, 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, may become pregnant, or are nursing, and young children.

Farm-raised salmon is more readily available and less pricey than wild-caught salmon. But due to the farming conditions and the processed feed often used, farmed salmon contains higher levels of contaminants and has a lower omega-3 content than their wild-caught relatives.  Farmed salmon may contain unsafe levels of PCBs and dioxins, and higher levels of omega-6 fatty acids, which may suppress the immune system and promote inflammation in the body. 

All salmon contains about 25 to 30 pin bones, and typically deboned by hand.  Once caught, salmon is often frozen then shipped to China or other countries in Asia for the deboning process. Transporting the fish to other countries for the deboning process helps to keep the cost down. Once the salmon is deboned, it is refrozen and shipped back to the U.S.  All this processing decreases the nutrition profile, appearance, and flavor of the fish. Roundtrip to Asia and twice frozen increases the “food miles” which is considered less sustainable.  When fish or seafood is processed in another country, that country becomes the country of origin (COO).  At the market, be sure to read all labels on fish and seafood.  The COO label will give you some information as to how much the fish has been handled and processed.

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.  Consuming six ounces of albacore tuna weekly is considered safe.  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, lean protein, and adds variety to weekly fish consumption.

Imported seafood such as shrimp, scallops, crab, mussels, clams, squid, and lobster may contain unwanted additives. Importing seafood increases the handling, processing and overall food miles. Transporting requires at least one freezing process of the seafood.  Domestic seafood contains fewer additives and contaminants, which are reflected in the nutrition profile, appearance, and flavor.  Shellfish, mollusks, 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.

Check local advisories about the safety of fish caught by friends and family in local lakes, rivers, and coastal regions.  If no advice is available, eat up to six ounces (one average meal) per week of fish caught in local waters.

The Scale Tips in Favor of Fish  

Recent research shows that the overall health benefits of including fish and seafood 2 to 3 times weekly far outweigh the possible risks.  The Institute of Medicine reports the risk of cancer from PCBs is overrated.  Be an informed consumer.  In restaurants, ask where the fish or seafood originated.  In the market, read labels, ask questions, look carefully at the appearance of the product for color and freshness.   Consider the options to enjoy and optimize the health benefits from fish… because it’s delish!

For more information on wild-caught fish, seafood, recipes and cooking ideas, visit VitalChoice.com.