The Benefits of Eating Fish and How to Do It Safely

The Health Benefits of SalmonIf you’re like most people, you eat more red meat and chicken than you do fish. If you never eat fatty fish like salmon, you’re missing out on a good source of omega-3 fats that have anti-inflammatory properties that may help to keep your heart and brain healthy.

You can get short-chain omega-3s from sources like walnuts, flaxseed, chia, sesame seeds and hemp seeds, but the omega-3s in these foods don’t appear to have the same health benefits as the longer chain omega-3s in fatty fish. Your body can convert a small amount of the omega-3s you get from these sources to long-chain omega-3s, but the conversion rate is low. This means you’re missing out on some of the benefits if you’re not eating fish. Sounds like fish should be on the dinner table – but not every fish is equally worthy of a place on your plate.

The Downsides to Eating Fish

Before rushing to your local seafood store, there are some drawbacks to eating fish, especially larger fish that are higher in the food chain. Larger fish eat smaller fish, and they live long enough to accumulate a significant amount of mercury and toxins like PCB’s and dioxins from the environment. When you eat them, you’re exposing yourself to these unhealthy chemicals and metals, some of which have been linked with cancer.

When you eat fish, it’s important to choose ones that are low in mercury and other contaminants. There are certain fish you should avoid or only eat on occasion. These include swordfish, shark, King mackerel, tilefish, orange roughy, ahi tuna, bigeye tuna, eel and marlin. Mercury levels are high enough in these fish that the risks of eating them far outweigh the benefits. Pregnant women and children should never consume these fish.

Salmon: High in Omega-3s – but Is It Safe?

Salmon is one of the best sources of omega-3s, but make sure it’s not farm-raised. Farm-raised salmon may contain high levels of PCBs and dioxins, chemicals that may increase your risk for cancer. Wild-caught Alaskan salmon is the best choice. Unfortunately, it may be difficult to find fresh salmon that isn’t farmed. An inexpensive option is to buy canned Alaskan salmon. Make sure the label doesn’t say “Atlantic salmon” since Atlantic salmon is farm-raised. Confusing, isn’t it?

Other Safe Options

Small fish like sardines and anchovies are good choices for the dinner table since they’re low in the food chain and don’t accumulate significant amounts of mercury or toxins. Other seafood that’s low in mercury include clams, shrimp, tilapia, Pacific flounder, crab, scallops, summer flounder, sole, haddock and whitefish. Choose canned tuna over albacore tuna. Canned tuna is made from skipjack, a small breed of tuna that’s lower in mercury. Of these options, wild-caught salmon, sardines, anchovies and canned tuna are highest in omega-3s.

Pregnant Women and Children Should Watch Their Fish Intake

Kids should avoid fish that aren’t low in mercury since they’re small, and pregnant women should talk to their doctor before eating fish, although omega-3s are important for an unborn baby’s brain development.

What about Taking an Omega-3 Supplement?

Most omega-3 supplements you purchase from a reputable supplier have very low levels of mercury and contaminants. That’s because reputable suppliers use a purification method called molecular distillation that removes any contaminants. The question is whether omega-3 supplements have the same benefits as omega-3s you get through diet. Some nutrients don’t have the same effects when you isolate them out and can even be harmful in isolation Plus, some research suggests that omega-3 and fish oil supplement don’t have the same benefits as getting omega-3s naturally through diet.

What should you do? The best option may be to eat a low-mercury fish that’s high in omega-3s twice a week. Wild-caught salmon is a good choice, and canned Alaskan salmon is the least expensive option. You can use it to make salmon cakes, salmon burgers or add it to salads. Add low-fat mayo and spices and turn it into a sandwich spread. Salmon is also an excellent source of protein and vitamin B12. Sardines and anchovies are other good options. They’re a little “fishy” for some people, but they’re a good addition to salads, pizzas and soups – and you can feel good knowing you’re getting omega-3s. Here’s a recipe for salmon burgers if you need inspiration:

Salmon Burger Recipe

References:

Medscape.com. “The Role of Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Cardiovascular Disease”

Consumer Reports. “The Benefits and Risks of Eating Fish”

WebMD.com. “Pregnant? Omega-3 Essential for Baby’s Brain”

Kristie Leong M.D.

Dr. Kristie Leong and Dr. Apollo Leong are physicians helping you to lead a healthy lifestyle by sharing nutrition and fitness tips and keeping you abreast of the latest health news.

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