Fish and Your Health

There's no doubt that healthful eating habits contribute to a healthy body. It's been known for decades that heart health, weight control, illness prevention and overall body functioning are all affected by what we eat. For women, there's the added importance of eating properly when pregnant or breastfeeding, because another person is depending on you for nourishment.

Say "Yes" To Seafood

Although no single food alone can make a person healthy, eating more seafood is one way that most of us can help improve our diets—and our health. Many of the studies about beneficial omega-3 fatty acids focus on fish as the primary source. Salmon, sardines, tuna and even shellfish are rich in omega-3 fatty acid content, but increasing your consumption of all types of fish and seafood is recommended.

The American Heart Association recommends that you eat fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids twice a week in order to reap specific health benefits. The American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada: Women's Health and Nutrition position paper suggests consuming two to three fish meals per week, along with a low-fat diet, for heart health. Although all fish aren't high in omega-3s, they still can contribute important amounts of these fatty acids if they're eaten regularly. The following chart provides a general overview of fish and their omega-3 fat content.

Omega-3 Content of Fish and Shellfish
Amounts are in grams per 3 ounce portion*

Catfish, channel, farmed, cooked, dry heat 0.2
Cod, Atlantic, cooked, dry heat 0.1
Flatfish (flounder and sole species), cooked, dry heat   0.4
Pollock, Atlantic, cooked, dry heat 0.5
Salmon, Atlantic, farmed, cooked, dry heat 1.8
Salmon, Chinook, cooked, dry heat 1.5
Salmon, Chinook, smoked, (lox), regular 0.4
Salmon, chum, cooked, dry heat 0.7
Salmon, coho, wild, cooked, dry heat 0.9
Salmon, pink, canned, solids with bone and liquid 1.4
Salmon, sockeye, canned, drained solids with bone 1.0
Salmon, sockeye, cooked, dry heat 1.0
Tuna, light, canned in water, drained solids 0.2
Tuna, white, canned in water, drained solids 0.7
Tuna, yellowfin, fresh, cooked, dry heat 0.2
Clam, mixed species, cooked, moist heat 0.2
Scallop, mixed species, cooked, dry heat 0.3
Crab, Alaska king, cooked, moist heat 0.4
Crab, Alaska king, imitation, made from surimi 0.5
Crab, blue, cooked, moist heat 0.4
Shrimp, mixed species, cooked, moist heat 0.3
*Cooked without added fat or sauces
Source: USDA Nutrient Database for Standard Reference

Getting Some Fat, But Not Too Much

Experts agree that a diet based on moderation and variety is essential to good health. In other words, eating some of a wide variety of foods provides more complete nutrition and is more beneficial overall than a diet that relies on just a few foods.

The current edition of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 recommends to "know your fats". Recommendations are to limit intake of fats and oils high in saturated and / or trans fatty acids and consume most fats from polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids. Diets higher in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats lower "bad" cholesterol levels, while saturated fats and trans fats increase "bad" cholesterol levels. Fatty meats and full-fat dairy products (i.e., whole milk and ice cream) are the major sources of saturated fat in the diet. Examples of unsaturated fat sources are fish, nuts and vegetable oils.

Increase Your Omega-3s

Within the polyunsaturated fat category, there are two important subclasses of fatty acids: omega-3s and omega-6s. Vegetable oils are rich in omega-6 fatty acids, and most Americans unknowingly get plenty of them in the diet. On the other hand, omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in fish and shellfish, tofu, flax, nuts and canola and soybean oils, are generally lacking in our diets. Omega-3s appear to have a positive effect on heart rhythm and according to one recent study, may even reduce the incidence of the most common type of stroke. In fact, on the basis of the current research, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the use of a qualified health claim for dietary supplements of omega-3 fatty acids relating them to a reduced risk of heart disease. Another intriguing area of research on omega-3 fatty acids pertains to their role in brain and visual function, as some research suggests they may have a role in preventing macular degeneration, a common form of blindness.

Continuing research involves the role of omega-3 fatty acids and the immune system, and suggests a positive influence on rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, lupus, kidney disease and cancer, as well as promising research at the National Institutes of Health on depression.

Getting Into The Swim Of It

Adding more fish and seafood to your diet is easy. One helpful tip is simply substitution. Slowly try substituting fish for one or more types of protein, thus establishing a twice-weekly seafood routine. Easy ways to do this include incorporating tuna sandwiches for lunch and sardines for snacks.

Here are some tips to help you get started:

  • Start slowly by substituting fish or shellfish for another type of meal each week. Once that is an established part of your eating plan, increase to two seafood meals per week.
  • Salmon and tuna give "burger night" a fresh flavor. Use fresh fish steaks to form patties to grill or broil. Canned tuna or salmon can also be used for burgers or fish "loaf."
  • Try marinating and grilling fish "steaks" such as halibut or salmon for a change of pace. Grilled fish kabobs are also a possibility with firm-fleshed fish.
  • Check your supermarket for a wide variety of marinades and spice mixtures to use with fish. And don't forget that old classic, lemon juice, garlic and herbs.
  • Have a couple of cans of tuna on hand for quick lunch or supper ideas. A tuna salad sandwich or a tuna and noodle casserole can be ready in no time. (Just go easy on the mayonnaise.)
  • Consider a "seafood snack" of tuna or sardines on crackers between meals.
  • Introduce fish and seafood to your children when they are young, so they get into the habit of eating it.
  • Choose broiled, grilled or baked fish more often than fried, which is higher in total fat.

Give Seafood A Place On Your Plate

Seafood is enjoyed by people all over the world. Its excellent nutritional content, good taste, availability and value price make it a staple food for many people. What's more, fish and seafood are frequently featured at cultural and religious celebrations by numerous ethnic groups and tribal nations in various parts of the United States and the world. Explore the many varieties of seafood and expand your collection of fish recipes—you and your family's health will be the better for it.

Frequently Asked Questions About Seafood

Nutritionally, how does fish compare with meat?

Fish and shellfish are excellent sources of protein that are low in fat. A 3-ounce cooked serving of most fish and shellfish provides about 20 grams of protein, or about a third of the average daily recommended protein intake. The protein in fish is of high quality, containing an abundance of essential amino acids, and is very digestible for people of all ages. Seafood is also generally lower in fat and calories than beef, poultry or pork. Seafood is also loaded with minerals such as iron, zinc and calcium (canned fish with soft, edible bones).

Why is seafood a good food choice for pregnant women?

For pregnant and breastfeeding women, seafood makes good nutritional sense. First, it's a good source of low-fat protein—important when you're trying to get the most nutritional value for your extra calories. Second, the type of omega-3 fatty acid known as DHA is thought to be beneficial to the eyes. Scientists have found that women who ate fatty fish while pregnant gave birth to children with better visual development. And, babies of mothers who had significant levels of DHA in their diet while breastfeeding experienced faster-than-normal eyesight development. Preliminary research also suggests that a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids—DHA in particular—may help decrease the chance of preterm birth, thus allowing the baby more time for growth and development.

Is seafood safe for pregnant women?

Yes. Seafood, including fish and shellfish, can be an important part of a healthy and balanced diet. Eating a variety of fish and seafood, rather than concentrating on one species, is highly recommended both for safety and nutrition. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) do, however, recommend that pregnant women and those who may become pregnant avoid certain species of fish (swordfish, shark, tilefish and king mackerel) and limit their consumption of other fish to an average of 12 cooked ounces per week. The reason for this recommendation is that, while nearly all fish contain some trace amounts of methylmercury, an environmental contaminant, large predatory fish such as swordfish, shark, tilefish and king mackerel contain the most. Excess exposure to methylmercury from these species of fish can harm an unborn child's developing nervous system. The revised "What You Need to Know About Mercury in Fish and Shellfish" advice also suggests that nursing mothers and young children not eat these particular species of fish.

Can I eat fish that my family and friends catch locally?

Yes. Fishing can be great fun, and for some, cooking up the catch of the day is the best part. For most people, eating locally caught fish is perfectly safe. However, at-risk populations like pregnant women, infants and children should be especially careful. Be sure to check with your local health department to see if there are any fish consumption advisories about fish caught from specific lakes, rivers or streams. Many states have issued fish consumption advisories due to high levels of mercury in local fish and several states have also issued advisories for PCBs. Anglers and their families should consult the local fish consumption advisories. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which regulates mercury in the environment, advises limiting consumption of locally caught freshwater fish to once a week for women who are pregnant, may become pregnant or are breastfeeding, and young children. Other members of your family should also follow the recommendations of your state or local health department regarding how much local fish to eat. This information is sometimes provided when obtaining a fishing license.

What You Need To Know ...

The beauty of eating seafood is that it allows for a greater variety of foods in your diet. It's readily available, relatively inexpensive and provides nutritious protein and beneficial fat, which can ultimately contribute to a healthful diet.

It is important for pregnant women and women who may become pregnant to remember that the current FDA advisory on fish consumption provides information on methylmercury. Also, check with the EPA and your local and state departments of health for information on other environmental factors in species caught and harvested in your local areas.

Additional Information

Additional information about the benefits of fish and seafood in a healthful diet and issues relating to seafood safety can be found at the following Web sites.

American Dietetic Association

American Heart Association

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Science & Technology

U.S. Food and Drug Administration FDA Consumer Advisory

U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Seafood Information and Resources