Fish is quite a health catch. The reason? It's loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated “good fat” with numerous cardiovascular benefits. All seafood contains varying amounts of two omega-3s, DHA, and EPA, but oily fish such as sardines, salmon, and mackerel are particularly rich in these nutrients.
The heart-healthy actions of omega-3s are well-documented, so much so that the American Heart Association recommends eating at least two servings of fatty fish each week. But omega-3s, which reduce inflammation throughout the body, are also key players in boosting brain function, improving eyesight, enhancing fetal development, and even preventing cancer.
Fish is also a calorie-conscious choice for adding protein to your diet, since, unlike many meat sources, it’s low in saturated fat. And many varieties are loaded with minerals such as iron, zinc, and calcium. But while canned fish can be just as good a choice as fresh, don’t expect to net stellar nutritional results with fried fish.
Here are eight reasons to go fishing in your grocery aisle:
1. Protect your heart
Eating one to two servings of fish a week could reduce your risk of dying of a heart attack by a third or more. Research has shown that omega-3 fatty acids decrease risk of dangerous arrhythmias (abnormal heartbeats). Omega-3s also decrease triglyceride levels, slow growth rate of atherosclerotic plaque, and lower blood pressure (slightly), according to the American Heart Association.
2. Beat cancer
Regular use of fish oil supplements was associated with a 32 percent reduced risk of breast cancer in a study of 35,000 women, reported in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention. A Harvard study found that men who ate fish more than three times a week cut their chances of developing advanced prostate cancer by 40 percent. The main cancer-fighter is probably omega-3 oils, but generous amounts of vitamins A and D may also help.
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3. Boost brain power
Research suggests that omega-3s contribute to better mental function. A 2007 Dutch study, reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that people over 50 with the highest levels of omega-3s in their blood scored significantly better in cognitive tests that measured speed of information processing and sensorimotor reaction time. A study in the journal Archives of Neurology found that participants who consumed fish once a week or more had 60 percent less risk of Alzheimer’s disease compared with those who rarely or never ate fish.
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4. Stop a stroke
Intake of fish is inversely related to risk of stroke, according to an analysis published in the journal Stroke. Consuming fish as seldom as one to three times each month may protect against the incidence of ischemic stroke, the type caused by plaque buildup and blood clots in the arteries that lead to the brain. However, high doses of omega-3s in fish oil — the equivalent of three fish servings daily — may increase the risk of bleeding and with it, the risk of hemorrhagic stroke.
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5. Shield your eyes
The University of Maryland Medical Center reports that in a survey of more than 3,000 people over the age of 49, those who ate more fish were less likely to have macular degeneration. A clinical study of 350 people with macular degeneration and 500 without the eye disease found that those with a good balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and more fish in their diets were less likely to have the age-related condition, which can lead to blindness.
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6. Be in a better mood
A study of healthy volunteers at the University of Pittsburgh found that those who had lower blood levels of omega-3s were more likely to report mild or moderate symptoms of depression, a more negative outlook, and be more impulsive. The reverse was true of those with higher blood levels of omega-3s. “A number of previous studies have linked low levels of omega-3 to clinically significant conditions such as major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, substance abuse, and attention deficit disorder,” said Sarah Conklin, a postdoctoral scholar at the university’s School of Medicine. “However, few studies have shown that these relationships also occur in healthy adults. This study opens the door for future research looking at what effect increasing omega-3 intake … has on people’s mood.”
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7. Improve immune function
Because omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties, researchers have theorized they could be useful in managing inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. An article in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition reviews a number of clinical trials of fish-oil supplementation to treat rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, psoriasis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and migraine headaches, and concludes there is “significant benefit, including decreased disease activity and a lowered use of anti-inflammatory drugs.”
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8. Boost infant development
Omega-3s have been found to be essential for both neurological and early visual development of babies, advises the American Pregnancy Association. Research has confirmed that adding EPA and DHA to the diet of pregnant women has a positive effect on these factors, and may reduce infant allergies, prevent preterm labor, and increase gestational weight.
On the downside, certain types of fish may contain high levels of mercury and other toxins. Because mercury can impair youthful neurodevelopment, pregnant women and small children should avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish, and other larger, predatory varieties. Some commonly eaten, high-omega-3 fish that are low in mercury are canned light tuna (vs. albacore), salmon, and sardines. Some fish, such as tilapia and catfish, are not only low in omega-3s and but are high in arachidonic acid, a type of omega-6 fatty acid that’s also found in red meat and egg yolks. The Mayo Clinic notes that too much arachidonic acid can increase your risk of heart disease.