Does eating fish help your heart health? Here are 3 things to know

With the high rate of heart disease in the U.S., health experts are constantly seeking strategies the general public will adopt to lower their risk. One such strategy is the campaign to eat more fish because there is evidence that folks who eat more fish tend to be healthier overall and have greater heart health.

In fact, regularly eating fish and seafood is consistently associated with lower risk for cardiovascular disease, according to the American Heart Association.

Considering the link between eating more fish and lowering the risk of heart disease raises an interesting question. Is eating fish protective because there is something about fish that is particularly good for your heart and cardiovascular system? Or is fish protective because when you eat fish, you are not eating red meat, which we know is harmful?

Let's explore the pros and cons of adding more fish to your diet.

Does eating more fish impact your heart health?

Wild Alaskan Sockeye salmon at Varanese in Louisville.
Wild Alaskan Sockeye salmon at Varanese in Louisville.

Health experts tell us there is more benefit to eating fish than simply not eating red meat. Overall, a huge number of studies support the regular consumption of fish, and the American Heart Association and many health experts recommend eating fish twice a week.

Fish offers a hefty dose of omega-3 fatty acids that battle inflammation. In recent years we have come to appreciate how chronic inflammation contributes to many health problems such as atherosclerosis (clogging of the arteries) the underlying cause of the vast majority of heart attacks. Fatty fish, such as salmon, is the best source of omega-3s. In addition to combating inflammation, fish helps improve blood vessel function which contributes to lower blood pressure.

Unfortunately, as is the case with other healthful practices like exercising regularly, our track record when it comes to fish consumption is poor. Less than 20% of Americans meet the recommendation of consuming fish twice weekly, and only 30% consume fish once a week. The rest of the population, about half, eat fish only occasionally or they avoid it entirely.

Many reasons are offered for avoiding fish. Some folks are allergic, others don’t like the taste, say it’s too expensive, or too difficult to find a good selection, etc. However, a big factor often cited is fear of getting a high dose of toxic pollutants. Is this a legitimate excuse?

What to know about mercury in fish, seafood

Unfortunately, pollutants in the foods we eat are a reality of life and are not restricted to fish. Fruits, vegetables, eggs, and meat are also culprits, but fish stands out due to the fear of mercury and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). We know that high levels of mercury can damage nerves in adults and can inhibit the development of the brain and nervous system in a fetus or young children. PCBs may contribute to an increased risk of cancer.

So, how big is the risk from fish? Considering the amount of mercury likely to be consumed in fish, the Food and Drug Administration and other agencies contend that there is not sufficient evidence to recommend cutting back on fish consumption, especially given the well-established health benefits, particularly when it comes to the prevention of heart disease.

What about the risk of PCBs? Many health experts believe the risk of cancer from PCBs is overrated. They cite a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association that reviewed data from the Environmental Protection Agency which concluded that if 100,000 people consumed fish twice a week for 70 years, the dose of PCBs could contribute to the cancer death of 24 people. That sounds bleak until you consider that this level of fish consumption also would contribute to the prevention of more than 7,000 deaths from heart disease.

It must be pointed out that PCBs accumulate through the food chain and can be found almost anywhere in the foods we consume. As to the highest sources, they include fish (such as salmon and shellfish) and animal fat, plus milk, butter, and other dairy products.

Since salmon is often targeted as the worst of the worst when it comes to PCBs, it raises another question:

Should you eat wild or farm-raised salmon?

Salmon tastes good and provides health benefits, making it a popular meal. It’s so popular it has been overfished in the wild, which has made it difficult to meet the demand. This has resulted in the establishment of huge fish farms to supplement what Mother Nature provides. So, which is best, wild salmon or farm-raised?

When making the choice, wild salmon can be harder to find, but it’s worth the effort. One distinction is that wild salmon is higher in omega-3 fatty acids that lower inflammation, while farmed salmon is higher in omega-6 fatty acids that promote inflammation.

There are additional reasons to go with wild salmon. Many, but not all, salmon farms are densely packed with fish, similar to the big agra-business approach to raising chickens, pigs, and cattle. The dense packing of farm-raised salmon influences the waterbeds and breeds diseases from the proliferation of excrement and other factors. In turn, this can require the infusion of antibiotics and powerful chemicals to control bacterial pathogen growth.

So, is this a problem? Most experts suggest it’s not a major problem unless you consume farm salmon too often. The recommendation is at most once a week. In addition, be sure to carefully peel off all skin and remove as much fat as possible. This is where the chemicals are stored.

Reach Bryant Stamford, a professor of kinesiology and integrative physiology at Hanover College, at stamford@hanover.edu.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Does eating fish help your heart health, lower cholesterol

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