Something fishy

If it’s Ash Wednesday next week, it must be time for fish.

Once upon a time, eating fish during Lent was considered penitential. These days, given what’s known about the nutritional benefits of seafood, it’s more likely to be seen as something healthful.

Americans historically have consumed far more meat than fish. It’s true the United States is second only to Japan and China in the sheer quantity of fish and shellfish consumed – 4.8 billion pounds in 2009 – but figures collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show little change in this amount over the past five years. In fact, U.S. seafood consumption per capita actually declined from 2008 to 2009, falling from 16 pounds per person to 15.8 pounds. (In comparison, we eat more than 200 pounds of meat per capita per year.) Even shrimp, America’s top favorite, was only consumed at the rate of 4 pounds per person per year.

It’s a curious trend, in view of the evidence that has been mounting for many years that fish consumption is beneficial for health in a variety of ways, from heart function to the inner workings of the brain. All told, more than 5,000 studies carried out worldwide say the same thing: Fish is good for you.

The American Heart Association, for instance, recommends two servings a week, particularly for adults who are middle-aged and older. Regular fish consumption has been linked with a reduced risk of heart disease, heart arrhythmia and high blood pressure.

There’s more: Because fish is high in protein and relatively low in fat, fish for dinner can help with weight management and the management of diabetes. One of the latest research efforts, the Framingham Osteoporosis Study, reported this month in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that the polyunsatured fatty acids contained in fish may help protect against bone loss.

Another benefit is that it seems to promote healthy brain function. French researchers who administered cognitive tests to nearly 3,300 adults found that those who reported higher fish consumption also had fewer cognitive difficulties.

An intriguing study by the Rush University Medical Center and its Institute for Healthy Aging even hints that eating fish might be protective against developing Alzheimer’s disease, possibly because of the antioxidant qualities of the n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids contained in fish.

The ingredient in seafood that seems to confer the most benefit? By now you’ve probably already guessed: It’s the omega-3 fatty acids. The body doesn’t produce these on its own, so they must be obtained from outside sources. Other foods such as walnuts, soybeans and flaxseed oil also contain omega-3, but current science suggests the richest source – and the greatest impact on health - comes from seafood.

So why don’t Americans eat more seafood? In a telephone poll carried out among 1,000 U.S. adults, the top barriers were the cost of seafood and the fact that many people don’t like how it tastes. Many of the survey participants also said it was hard to find good-quality seafood and hard to prepare it properly.

An even bigger barrier, unfortunately, is environmental. Pollution has fouled both fresh-water and saltwater ecosystems, resulting in high levels of methyl mercury, PCBs and other contaminants in some fish. Environmentalists also are concerned about the impact of commercial fishing on the wild fish population, as well as the potential for domestic fish-farming to damage surrounding waters.

But in two independent reviews of the evidence back in 2006, the Harvard School of Public Health and the Institute of Medicine concluded the benefits of regular fish consumption outweigh any health risks from contaminants. The federal government’s new food guidelines, issued earlier this year, recommend eating eight ounces a week – more than twice the amount most Americans currently consume. Women who are pregnant or nursing should avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish because of the potential for unsafe levels of mercury. Pregnant and nursing mothers also should limit their consumption of white albacore tuna to no more than 6 ounces a week.

For those who catch their own fish and want to know whether it’s safe, the Minnesota Department of Health has posted its guidelines here for fish harvested from Minnesota lakes and streams.

If you want to purchase seafood that’s sustainably produced, the Blue Ocean Institute and Seafood Watch include detailed information and ratings on their websites – but be aware that the data often are conflicting or confusing.

What are some good ways to add seafood to the dinner menu? One is to gradually substitute fish or shellfish for meat - having tuna in a salad or sandwich once a week, for instance. Baked or broiled fish is the best, and most healthful, method of preparation. Although many people love fish that has been breaded and deep-fried, studies of stroke incidence in the American South have discovered that frying seems to negate some of the benefits of omega-3 and might actually contribute to a higher risk of stroke.

What about fish oil capsules? According to the Mayo Clinic, you’re better off obtaining omega-3 from the real thing vs. a supplement. But if you’re at risk of heart disease, consider talking to your doctor about whether you would benefit from a supplement.

Photos: Wikimedia Commons; Logo: Troy Murphy, West Central Tribune