Fish is a high-protein, low-fat food that provides a range of health benefits. White-fleshed fish, in particular, is lower in fat than any other source of animal protein, and oily fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids, or the “good” fats. Since the human body can’t make significant amounts of these essential nutrients, fish are an important part of the diet. Also, fish are low in the “bad” fats commonly found in red meat, called omega-6 fatty acids.
A growing body of evidence indicates that omega-3 fatty acids provide a number of health benefits. They help maintain cardiovascular health by playing a role in the regulation of blood clotting and vessel constriction; important for prenatal and postnatal neurological development; may reduce tissue inflammation and alleviate the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis; may play a beneficial role in cardiac arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), reducing depression and halting mental decline in older people.
Alternative sources of omega-3s come from terrestrial sources like flaxseed, walnuts and wheat germ. While still beneficial, these do not appear to provide as a great a health benefit as the omega-3s found in fish, shellfish and marine algae.
Fish is generally a healthy food source and can be safely eaten in most cases. But depending on your age and health circumstances, some people should limit the amounts of fish they eat.
For young children and women of childbearing age, excessive consumption of mercury-contaminated fish can severely impact a child’s development.
Older women and men may find it an acceptable trade off to exceed recommended seafood meal limits to increase their omega-3 intake.
People at high risk of cardiovascular disease must weigh the cancer risk of eating fish high in Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) with the benefits of eating fish high in omega-3s, in which case the benefits of omega-3s may outweigh the cancer risk. However, these chemicals are known to cause serious health problems besides cancer, so the tradeoffs are not simple.
The good news is that there are several low-contaminants, high-omega-3 seafood options available, so there’s no need to risk eating contaminated fish. Salmon, tuna, sardines, etc., deliver those heart-and brain-healthy omega-3 fats you have probably also heard you should be getting in your diet.