Fish and Heart Health

The Big Heart Disease Lie

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If good health is your wish, get hooked on fish. Research indicates that fish may guard against not only heart disease but also hypertension, cancer, arthritis, asthma, and who knows what else. The omega-3 fatty acids, the special polyunsaturated fat found in fish oil, block many harmful biochemical reactions that can cause blood to clot (predisposing you to heart attack and stroke) and the heart to beat irregularly (as occurs during a heart attack). Some researchers believe that fish oils can prevent heart disease from beginning rather than merely having a beneficial effect after the onset of the disease.

A comparison of the rates of death from heart disease of men in a fishing village and the rates of death of men in a farming village suggests a 4 times lower incidence of heart disease among the men in the fishing village. They ate 10 times more fish than the farmers and had much higher blood levels of the health-protective omega-3 fat (Torres et al. 2000). A study of almost 85,000 U.S. nurses suggests that women who ate fish two to four times a week had a 31 percent lower risk of heart disease compared with those who rarely ate fish (Hu et al. 2002).

The American Heart Association recommends eating about 8 oz (250 g) of oily fish per week (that's one large or two small fish servings) to help reduce your risk of heart disease. Eating fish for dinner not only contributes fish oil to your diet but also displaces meat-based meals high in saturated fat. Table 2.2 can help guide your fish choices so you select the fish highest in omega-3 fat. Just be sure that your fish is prepared in low-fat ways, not fried or broiled in butter. If you shy away from cooking fish, simply take advantage of precooked tuna (mixed with low-fat mayonnaise), salmon, and sardines in cans or foil pouches.

Be careful about eating too much fish, however. Unfortunately, the fish highest in omega-3 fatty acids also deliver a dose of methylmercury from industrial pollution of the oceans. Long-term consumption of mercury can contribute to neurological and cardiovascular problems in

Eating to Stay Healthy for the Long Run


Table 2.2 Fish Highest in Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Fish, 6 oz cooked (8 oz raw);

Grams of omega-3

175 g cooked (250 g raw)

fat (EPA and DHA)**

Salmon, Atlantic, farmed


Sardines, in sardine oil, 3 oz (90 g)


Salmon, Atlantic, wild




Salmon, coho, farmed


Trout, rainbow, farmed


Trout, rainbow, wild


Salmon, coho, wild


Sardines, in vegetable oil, 3 oz (90 g)




Tuna, albacore white, canned, 3 oz (90 g)*


Tuna, fresh*




Lobster, 3 oz (90 g)


Shrimp, 3 oz (90 g)


Alternative sources

Smart Balance Omega Plus spread, 1/2 tbsp


Orange juice, omega-3 fortified, 8 oz (240 ml)


Egg, 1 omega-3 rich


Silk Plus Omega-3 DHA soy milk, 8 oz (240 ml)


  • Highest in mercury; limit to 6 oz (175 g) per week. **EPA and DHA are two types of omega-3 fat. Data from the American Heart Association and food labels.
  • Highest in mercury; limit to 6 oz (175 g) per week. **EPA and DHA are two types of omega-3 fat. Data from the American Heart Association and food labels.

adults, as well as cause significant damage to the developing brains of infants and children. If you are into sport fishing, eating sushi, or having tuna every day for lunch—and enjoy high-mercury fish several times a week—take heed. The mercury can accumulate in your body and create health problems (numbness and tingling in hands and feet, fatigue, muscle pain).

Yet, the FDA advises pregnant women that they can and should safely enjoy up to 12 ounces (340 g) of fish a week because fish oil is important for normal brain development. The 12 ounces includes a large safety margin, but pregnant women should avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tile fish and limit their intake of albacore tuna to not more than one 6-ounce can per week. These fish are long-lived and large; they accumulate mercury in their tissues over time by eating a lot of smaller mercury-containing fish. The safest fish are shrimp, salmon, pollock, catfish, and canned light tuna. For a list of fish oil and mercury in commonly consumed seafood, visit the American Heart Association's Web site and do a search for "fish." To calculate your potential mercury intake, go to

If you are not a fish fan, and if you have heart disease, the American Heart Association suggests fish oil capsules as an alternative: 850 to 1,000 milligrams EPA plus DHA; 2,000 to 4,000 milligrams if you have high triglycerides (Kris-Etherton, Harris, and Appel 2002; Mosca et al. 2007). But be aware: Fish oil supplements contain only a small amount of omega-3s compared with a fish dinner, so you may need to take several capsules to get the equivalent of one 4-ounce (120 g) serving of salmon. For more information about fish oil supplements, visit the Web site of the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements (www.

An alternative way to ingest omega-3 fat is from plant sources, such as flaxseed oil, walnuts, tofu, soy nuts, canola oil, and olive oil. Plant sources offer a less potent type of omega-3s, but any omega-3 is better than none. You can also buy foods fortified with omega-3s, such as some brands of orange juice, margarine, yogurt, and eggs.

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