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Hooked on heart health: The benefits of eating more fish

A well-prepared fish entrée is delicious. But is it good for you?

There are tens of thousands of species of fish out there, although you’ll only find a handful of them in your standard grocery store. Which fish are actually good for you, and how much fish should we be eating, anyway?

Reeling in the biggest catch: Healthier hearts

First, let’s look at the benefits of eating fish. One of the most often-mentioned benefits is to our hearts.

Dr. Saadia Qasim, family medicine physician at Beacon Medical Group Elkhart East.

“Fish is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have many cardiovascular benefits,” explained Saadia Qasim, MD, a family medicine physician with Beacon Medical Group Elkhart East. “These include lowering blood pressure and reducing the risk of heart disease.”

An analysis of 20 different studies suggested that including three to six ounces of fatty fish in your diet each week lowers your risk of death from heart disease by more than a third.

People who want to incorporate fish into their diets to support heart health should consider the Mediterranean diet, which encourages consumption of fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines and trout.

“The Mediterranean diet emphasizes fresh, minimally processed food and a moderate approach to red meat consumption, so it can be a delicious and nutritious way to incorporate more fish in your diet,” said Dr. Qasim.

More downstream health benefits

While the evidence for health benefits from fish might be strongest when it comes to heart health, evidence also shows that eating fish supports a variety of other aspects of health.

“They are also essential for brain health and may potentially reduce the risk of cognitive decline as people age,” said Dr. Qasim. “Omega-3 fatty acids may also reduce the risk of age-related macular degeneration.”

In addition, fish are typically lower in calories and saturated fat than other meats. For that reason, Dr. Qasim says that fish as part of a balanced diet may help with weight management.

Balancing risks and benefits

According to the FDA, pregnant women and children should also eat fish, although it’s best to limit consumption to one or two servings a week due to the possible presence of mercury.

“Some types of fish, especially large predatory fish, can contain high levels of mercury, which can be harmful,” explained Dr. Qasim. She especially urges caution for pregnant women, nursing mothers and young children, as mercury can affect the nervous system.

Fish can also contain environmental contaminants, such as pesticides and polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs), a type of chemical. Although its manufacture was banned in 1979, it persists in the environment and can accumulate in small organisms and fish. These chemicals can pose health risks.

Dr. Qasim also cautions that eating raw or undercooked fish can increase the risk of bacterial or parasitic infections.

Nevertheless, “most Americans consume seafood, but in inadequate amounts to meet federal dietary guidance,” she said. “Overall, incorporating fish in your diet can contribute to better overall health and well-being.”

By cooking fish properly, choosing fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids and using healthier recipes like those in a Mediterranean diet, fish can be a highly beneficial part of your diet.

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