Eating fish, particularly fatty fish, is a key part of a healthy diet. Yet, changing guidelines and news reports about contamination of mercury and pollutants have left many wondering if fish is still a smart choice. A review of research done over the past few years, reveals an overwhelming “yes!” when it comes to whether we should be eating fish. In fact, the health benefits of fish are pretty powerful, and new guidelines from the FDA and EPA help to minimize potential risks.
Reason #1: Heart Protector
The benefit that regular fish consumption has on heart health is overwhelmingly consistent with numerous studies pointing to reduced risks of heart attack and stroke. The heart-boosting benefits are largely attributed to the omega 3-fatty acids in fish that decrease triglycerides, slow plaque formation, and decrease blood pressure. And while it’s ideal to choose a fish high in omega-3s, research suggests simply eating fish twice a week, regardless of their fatty acid levels, as a lean protein source. For many, this means substituting fish in place of beef or another animal protein higher in saturated fats, and saturated fats are one of the key culprits in development of heart disease.
Reason #2: Proper Brain Development
Adequate intake of DHA, a type of omega-3 found almost exclusively in fish, is associated with proper brain and eye development in babies. A 2016 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology suggested that mothers with higher fatty fish intakes (around 2 to 3 servings per week) were more likely to have children with higher cognitive scores; the children also had a lower risk of being diagnosed with autism. DHA deficiencies during pregnancy and the first few months of life are also linked to lower intelligence and poorer eyesight. While mercury in fish is a legitimate concern, particularly during pregnancy and in young children, research suggests that benefits outweigh any demonstrated risk when following the FDA and EPA’s selection and serving size guidelines.
Reason #3: Natural Mood Booster
Lower intakes of omega-3 fatty acids have been noted in those with depression and anxiety – an interesting association, but not convincing for most to embrace the idea of eating for a pick-me-up. However, more recent research suggests that adding omega-3’s, particularly the EPA form which is found almost exclusively in fish, can improve symptoms associated with depression, including postpartum depression. One study even suggested that EPA supplements had an equivalent effect to taking an antidepressant medication. Using omega-3’s as your only treatment for depression is a bit of a stretch, but it seems that eating more EPA-rich foods might not be a bad idea for prevention or as part of treatment.
Reason #4: Gray Matter
Looking to improve memory? Eat some fish. One study found that regular fish eaters hard larger proportions of gray matter, the portion of the brain associated with memory and decision-making, and consuming fish regularly may help preserve brain integrity and functioning as you age. Some speculate that the omega-3’s in fish have a protective effect on brain neurons, while others think benefits may be due to increased blood flow within the brain thanks to cardiovascular improvements from omega-3s. Even more promising are findings suggesting eating fatty fish or consuming fish oil supplements may prevent or slow the progression of Alzheimer’s.
Reason #5: Autoimmune Risk
A new and promising area of research is the effect that fish consumption may have on autoimmune diseases like Type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. Potential benefits center around the fact that inflammation within the body is often involved in either the development or flare-ups of autoimmune conditions, and DHA and EPA happen to have anti-inflammatory effects in the body. This has led some to suggest – and even try – eating fish regularly or taking fish oil supplements to soothe symptoms or halt progression. In fact, the Arthritis Foundation recommends eating fatty fish 2 to 4 times per week. A few studies have recently suggested that fish oil may reduce risk of developing type 1 diabetes, but there’s still a lot to be discovered. Also, it’s important to note that choosing fish with low-mercury levels is even more important since high mercury consumption may also play a role in autoimmune development.
Risk versus Benefit?
For most individuals (including pregnant women and children), the benefits of eating fish appear to greatly outweighing any potential risks if you follow the FDA and EPA’s guidelines released earlier this year. The guidelines suggest you choose a variety of fish in the “Best Choices” category, as well as providing a list of fish to minimize or avoid. In addition, they specify weekly frequency for fish intake, and servings sizes for adults, as well as pregnant women and children, along with tips like removing skin and trimming fat to decrease mercury content by up to 40 percent.