Eating Fish for Heart Health

Updated:May 3,2012

Cooked Salmon on Plate Eating fish twice a week is a great way to improve your heart health!

If fish isn’t already a regular part of your diet, do your heart a favor and try a serving once a week, preferably twice.

The benefits come from omega-3 fatty acids. While fish oil supplements are popular, the American Heart Association does not consider them a sufficient replacement for eating fish.

The full benefits of a fish-friendly diet are difficult to quantify, but there is plenty of evidence that people who eat fish regularly are less likely to have cardiovascular disease.

“When we talk about the advantages of eating fish, we’re talking about over the long term – which comes from eating it twice a week," said Alice Lichtenstein, D.Sc., former chair of the American Heart Association's Nutrition Committee and Gershoff professor of nutrition science and policy at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, at Tufts University in Boston.

Plus, Dr. Lichtenstein said, there’s also the simple fact that whenever you eat fish, you are cutting something else from your diet, particularly other protein sources that may be less healthy and higher in saturated fats.

Reeling It In Can Be Easy

Stumped by what kind of fish to eat? How to cook it? Where to buy it?

Relax.

“For someone who is not habitually eating fish, any fish is better than no fish,” Dr. Lichtenstein said.

Here is Dr. Lichtenstein’s advice on easing into a fish-friendly diet:
  • There are many kinds of fish you can choose. Just find one – or several – you like.
  • There are many ways to cook fish provided it’s not battered and fried, or loaded in butter or a cream sauce. Try adding lemon, herbs and spices.
  • Fresh, frozen or canned? From a grocery store or a fish market? Feel free to go with whatever costs less and is something you enjoy.

“I think people need to use common sense,” she said. “The most important thing is they have to enjoy the type of fish they buy or else it’s going to be a one-time thing. That’s why I don’t like to have many hard-and-fast rules.

“The issue really is to eat more fish and not get too concerned about the details.”

If you already regularly  eat fish …

Experienced consumers of fish may have more detailed questions, such as wondering which fish have the highest doses of omega-3 fatty acids. Candidates include salmon, mackerel, tuna, sardines and bluefish.

“We call those ‘oily fish,’” Dr. Lichtenstein said. “They have a deep-colored flesh.”

What about the question of whether it’s best to eat farm-raised fish or wild-caught fish? “At this point, it really doesn’t matter,” Dr. Lichtenstein she said. “Let affordability and availability come first.”

Remember: Two Fish Meals a Week

Remember the adage that an apple a day keeps the doctor away? “Eat fish twice a week” isn’t quite as catchy, but Dr. Lichtenstein believes it could have the same effect.

“This is not new advice,” she adds. “The problem is people don’t seem to embrace it.”

Some of the value of omega-3 fatty acids can be found in flaxseed, walnuts, soybeans and canola oils. But it’s really not the same as finding a way to get fish into your diet.

If necessary, consider the twice-a-week challenge akin to the goal of being physically active for 30 minutes, three times a week.

“This is not an antibiotic that you take for five days and you’re finished,” Dr. Lichtenstein said. “This is a long-term change in dietary pattern. Hopefully it goes along with other changes in dietary patterns, like eating more fruits and vegetables or more fiber-rich, whole grains.”

Dr. Lichtenstein admits she has an advantage because she lives in Boston, a haven for all sorts of fresh fish.

Her favorite?

“Salmon,” she said. “Just cook it at a high heat with a few herbs or spices, or drizzle it with lemon juice, and you can do pretty well.”

Learn More:


Cardiovascular Conditions

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