The Health Benefits of Eating Fish

Learn about the health benefits of eating fish and pick the most healthful, sustainably-harvested species with help from our handy guide for buying seafood.

| April/May 2006

When I was growing up, Friday was the busiest night at the local diner. Folks lined up early for “fish night,” a Catholic tradition that caught on even in our little burg of meat-and-potato-loving Germans. On other nights of the week, my mother frequently served up fish sticks and French fries. Fish made it onto everyone’s table at least once a week.

These days, there are even more compelling reasons to add fish and shellfish to your diet. Recent nutrition research has confirmed the benefits of eating oily fish, which are loaded with omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s are proven to boost brainpower and reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. Studies have shown that eating fish may also improve eye health, reduce the risk of colon cancer and have therapeutic effects for people suffering from depression and arthritis.

Given all these health benefits, one would think Americans would be eating more fish than ever, but just the opposite is true. A recent survey conducted by the University of Maryland’s Center for Food, Nutrition and Agriculture Policy revealed that only 36 percent of Americans eat fish once a week or more, while nearly a third of us (29 percent) eat fish once a month or less.

The dietary guidelines released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture last year suggest that people eat two servings of fish or shellfish each week, a recommendation also endorsed by the American Heart Association. But consumers are also hearing numerous warnings against eating fish. Many supermarkets now post warnings about the dangers of eating fish high in mercury — a potent neurotoxin. (See the Sustainable Seafood Shopping Guide for a list of fish high in mercury.) And from the news, we hear about the problems of overharvesting wild fish species and the water pollution caused by some commercial fish farms. So it’s no wonder that many of us are eating less fish.

But don’t toss out the tartar sauce just yet — by observing a few guidelines, you can enjoy the health benefits of eating fish, minimize the health risks and avoid choosing overharvested species. Here’s what you need to know to navigate the fish market swimmingly.

Cast Your Line

Fish is a great source of protein, and it has the kind of fat that’s good for your heart. Fish is low in unhealthy saturated fat, especially when compared to red meat, and it’s full of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. There are several types of omega-3s, and all play varying roles in combating heart disease by preventing clots and encouraging healthy blood circulation.

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