Go Fishing for Heart Health: New Seafood Guidelines
You've probably heard this before: Most Americans don't eat enough seafood. Most fish are loaded with heart-healthy omega 3 fats--which is why experts used to recommend you eat 6 ounces of fatty fish like salmon or shrimp a week.
Even if you're eating 6 ounces, you're not getting enough, according to the new U.S. Dietary Guidelines. Those recommendations call for 8 ounces or about half of what most Americans are eating now.
"Avoiding seafood increases your risk of dying from a heart attack," says Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, cardiovascular researcher and professor of medicine at the Harvard Medical School. "There is a 10-fold higher risk of sudden death from heart disease. This is mind blowing."
Oily fish such as salmon (both wild and farmed), trout, mackerel, herring, anchovies and sardines are especially beneficial for heart health because of they are excellent sources of omega-3 fats, specifically eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
White fish such as cod, halibut and catfish are healthy too, but since they don't contain as much fish oil, you have to eat a lot more. It takes just two 3.5-ounces servings of salmon to average the 250 mg of EPA/DHA recommended per day. You have to eat four servings of halibut or 10 servings of cod.
Two numbers that may shift your interest in salmon and sardines compare fish with drugs.
"If you look at total risk reduction from cardiac death, fish oil consumption lowers risk by 36 percent," Mozaffarian says. "That's comparable to taking statin drugs which lower risk by 35 percent. Omega 3's from fish really should be the first line of treatment in primary prevention of cardiac deaths in the whole population."
If you love seafood, don't stop at eight ounces a week. "You can eat more to get even more benefits," Mozaffarian says.
Fish oil may even be more powerful than obesity. Research reported recently in the European Journal of Nutrition reports found that Eskimos in Alaska, who consume 20 times more fish-based omega 3's than the general US population, seem to be partly protected from the harmful cardiovascular side effects of overweight and obesity.
Research links to the heart are strong; but other associations for Omega 3's and health are just emerging including battling depression, improved immune function, joint health, brain development in children and age related eye health.
"Maybe those snake oil salesmen going from town to town in the old West were actually selling fish oil," Mozaffarian muses, "Their claims of a 'cure all' might not have been totally off base."
But before you reach for a bottle of Omega 3 pills note that eating fish will land you more than just fish oil on a plate. Fish and shellfish (exact amounts depend on species) are excellent sources of other nutrients including protein, vitamin D, vitamin A, vitamin B12, selenium and iodine.
But What About the Mercury?Mercury is a heavy metal that gets into fish from volcanic eruptions and industrial pollution. Some fish contain more mercury than others, especially older and larger fish because they've had more time to be exposed to mercury.
Pregnant women and young children are advised to limit canned albacore tuna to once a week and to avoid the top four mercury-containing fish: Tilefish, shark, swordfish and king mackerel.
But there's no reason for the general population to avoid any of these fish because of their mercury content. "The benefits far outweigh the risk," Mozaffarian says.