Fishing for Better Health: The Benefits of Fish and Other Food Sources High in Omega 3 Fatty Acids

Spring is well under way and summer is fast approaching. It’s time for kids to take out their roller blades for carefree treks down boardwalks and sidewalks. Dads will rummage through closets for dormant baseball caps and to see if last year’s uniform still fits. If not playing ball he’ll watch from the sidelines, or from the comfort of his favorite chair. Moms, time to don old jeans, stock up on sunscreen, and get out the fishing poles. You heard me, ladies. Fishing poles! It’s time to fight back!

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), stroke is the third leading cause of death in women. Every year an estimated 97,000 American women will die as a result of stroke. Statistically, every 53 seconds stroke will victimize someone in America. Of an estimated 600,000 stroke victims each year about 160,000 die as a result. There is, however, an easy way to drastically reduce these statistics.

Findings in a 14-year-long study of nearly 80,000 American women indicate that eating a 3.5 ounce serving of fish, two to four times a week, lowers stroke risk by 27 percent. The more fish consumed, the more impressive the percentages. Although few large-scale studies have examined this particular issue in men, experts say there is no biological reason results of such studies would differ.

The American Medical Association (AMA) published the study results in their January journal, 2001. There is conclusive evidence that consumption of fish high in omega 3 fatty acids hold significant health benefits, including reduced thrombotic infarction — a type of stroke where a blood clot blocks an artery in the brain, resulting in destroyed brain tissue. (Blood clots are responsible for more than 80 percent of all strokes.)

Fish are a high source of omega 3 fatty acids, nutrients that help prevent the formation of clots, or “platelet clumping.” They do this by making blood less “sticky.” As a result, risk of thrombotic stroke is lessened, as well as risk of embolic stroke, where the clot forms elsewhere in the body before traveling to the brain.

Conducted at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, the study revealed that women who ate fish once a week reduced stoke risk by 22 percent; two to four times a week by 27 percent, and five or more times a week by 52 percent. Unfortunately, the average American woman only consumes about 1.3 servings of any type seafood weekly, at an average of 3.5 ounces per serving. Women are not eating enough fish!

Penny Kris Etherton, Ph.D., a heart disease researcher at the State University in Pennsylvania, has long extolled the virtues of eating fish for health purposes. “I clearly tell people to eat fish and shellfish regularly to lower the risk of heart disease.”

National Fisheries Institute (NFI) President, Richard E. Gutting, Jr., agrees. “The benefits of eating fish continue to mount as more studies are conducted,” he noted. Gutting also said that women of all ages “should enjoy the variety and great taste of fish and seafood on a regular basis.”

How the fish is prepared is important, as omega 3 fatty acids can be destroyed by heat, air, and light. NFI recommends not overcooking the meat and the use of low fat cooking methods: baking, broiling, poaching, steaming, stir-frying, grilling, or sauting. Cook just until the point of doneness for maximum benefit. Avoid deep-frying, as it not only destroys more omega 3, but also adds to the total fat content.

If eating fish isn’t your cup of tea, you might try fish oil supplements. Most experts do not advise the routine use of fish oil supplements, however, for two reasons:

1.) possible side effects — fishy breath, gastrointestinal upset, and easy bruising. 2.) a false sense of security derived from taking fish oil for heath purposes, when the diet itself may be unhealthy.

Besides fish and fish oil supplements, other good omega 3 fatty acid sources include canola oil, flaxseed oil, soybean oil, certain nuts and vegetables, and tofu. However, one would have to eat at least several times the normal amount of any of these other sources to gain the same benefit from one regular size serving of fish.

Institute of Food Technologist, Joyce Nettleton, D. Sc., R.D. suggests that because eating fish alone won’t compensate for unhealthy eating habits, “fish and other shellfish should be eaten as part of a low fat diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables.”

Besides boasting stroke resistant benefits, the fatty acids of omega 3 act as “health heroes” against hypertension, breast cancer, and depression. Other benefits include: less chance of developing heart disease, lower risk of heart attack even where heart disease does exist, lower blood pressure, possible improvement of kidney function in severe diabetes, and possible improvement of certain inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, psoriasis, and kidney disease.

In addition, nutrients found in healthy, uncontaminated fish help to insure proper development of fetal brain, eye, and nervous tissue during pregnancy. But, caution should be taken.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in a recent consumer advisory, pregnant women should not consume shark, swordfish, or king mackerel or should limit consumption to not more than once a month.

These large predator fish could contain higher levels of methyl mercury than the FDA limit for safe human consumption — 1 part per million (1ppm). Over consumption risks damage to the fetal nervous system. Even fresh water predator species such as pike and walleye have been found to have methyl mercury levels in the 1ppm range.

While it’s true nearly all fish contain trace elements of mercury, larger, older and predator fish accumulate the highest levels and pose the greatest threat, while younger fish caught after only one season in polluted water have less. Even so, a variety of fish and other seafood that offer a naturally low fat source of protein can be an important part of a balanced diet for mothers-to-be.

According to one FDA advisor, pregnant women can consume up to 12 ounces of cooked fish each week: shellfish, canned fish, smaller ocean fish or farm raised fish. Farm raised rainbow trout are most likely fed high protein foods containing a combination of soy and fish meal which make them an even better source of omega 3 fatty acid. Seven ounces of canned tuna can be safely consumed each week by pregnant women and nursing mothers if no other fish containing mercury is eaten.

Despite FDA warnings for pregnant women, the results of the survey hold wonderful news, and women should be greatly encouraged. We now have scientific proof that there is a positive step available toward reducing the risk of stroke. Even if you don’t like fish, consuming just one 3.5 ounce serving one or two times a month can reduce risk of stroke by 7 percent.

Certain kinds of fish are more beneficial than others. For instance, because Alaska is relatively unpopulated there is little industry to pollute the streams and ocean. Lack of pollution combined with the earth’s water and air circulation patterns make Alaska’s pristine waters, and consequently its seafood among the cleanest in the world.

Numerous studies support this assertion. In 1998 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) did a survey of seafood from the waters of Cook Inlet, located near Anchorage, Alaska. Results indicate that fin fish and shellfish caught in Cook Inlet were cleaner than any the EPA had ever tested. In addition, plentiful Alaska Salmon, one of the richest natural sources of omega 3 fatty acid available, are not among the publicized “endangered” varieties of salmon.

Although light meat fish such as perch, flounder, and whiting have only about 0.5 grams of omega 3 fatty acid per 4 ounce serving, fish varieties with dark meat such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, and bluefish contain roughly three times the amount of protective stroke reducing omega 3 fatty acid. Fresh tuna, striped bass, and rainbow smelt are also rich sources. So if you’re going to limit fish intake, a dark meat fish is your best choice.

Whether for purposes of hobby or health, fishing is relaxing and something the whole family can enjoy together. This fun “sport” has the potential to enhance your health and your marriage.

So, go ahead! Get a fishing license, grab a pole, and hit the shoreline. Eat “the fruits of your labor” five times a week to reduce stroke risk by as much as 52 percent. Then brag about the “big one” that got away!