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August 13, 2015 • Sports Medicine & Nutrition

Nutritional Value: Fishing for healthy meals

Not all athletes take to water naturally. Nevertheless, no one should miss out on one of its many benefits — mostly fish.

A diet rich in fish reduces the risk for heart disease and it also may help to ward off certain types of cancer, inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and even depression. Other good news about eating fish is it’s significantly lower in calories than most other protein-rich foods, and the fat it does contain is of the heart-healthy omega-3 variety.

salmonDespite ongoing concerns about the risk of mercury overload associated with eating fish and shellfish, it’s hard to overstate the health benefits of eating more.

Omega-3 fatty acids  

Fish, especially oily or “fattier” fish, is the main dietary source of the heart-protective omega-3 fatty acids — eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahaxaenoic acid (DHA). Omega-3 fats also include the plant-derived alpha-linolenic acid which the body converts to EPA and DHA, although not very efficiently.

Omega-3 fats improve heart health by lowering triglycerides, reducing blood pressure and stabilizing irregular heartbeats (arrhythmias). Acting as natural blood thinners, omega-3 fats also reduce the “stickiness” of red blood cells, thereby reducing the risk of blood clots and strokes. Our bodies also convert EPA and DHA into natural anti-inflammatory substances called prostaglandins.

For adults, consuming two servings (about 8 ounces) per week of fish high in EPA and DHA is associated with a reduced risk of both sudden death and death from coronary heart disease. DHA, in particular, also promotes a healthy nervous system and it’s critical for nourishing the developing brain of unborn babies and young children.

The American Heart Association feels very strongly about the evidence supporting omega-3 fats and they support other health and nutrition experts in recommending that fish (especially fatty fish) be eaten at least two times (two servings) a week. A serving is 3.5 ounces cooked, or about 3/4 cup of flaked fish.

The so-called fatty fish, like salmon, mackerel, herring, lake trout, sardines and albacore tuna are particularly high in omega-3 fatty acids. Fish can be cooked in many ways, and any method works as long as the fish isn’t battered and fried or loaded with butter or a cream sauce. 

Mercury matters

Nearly all fish and shellfish contain at least traces of mercury. Mercury occurs naturally in the environment and it also can be released via industrial pollution into the air. As it falls from the air, mercury accumulates in streams and oceans, where it is turned into methylmercury. As fish feed in these waters, they absorb the methylmercury. This is especially true for larger fish that have lived longer and had more time to accumulate it.

The agencies issuing advisories, such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Environmental Protection Agency, agree, however, that the risk of ingesting too much mercury by eating fish and shellfish is not a health concern for most people. In fact, for middle-aged and older men, and women after menopause, the benefits of a fish-friendly diet far outweigh the risks.

The best approach for minimizing any potentially adverse effects due to environmental pollutants is simply to eat a variety of fish from week to week. Fish with the highest levels of mercury (about one part per million) include shark, swordfish, tilefish and king mackerel. Children and pregnant women are advised by the FDA to avoid eating these fish entirely.

The full benefits of a fish-friendly diet come from eating fish over the long-term. In other words, from eating it twice a week throughout one’s lifetime. So along with the age-old advice to eat an apple a day to keep the doctor away, remember: two fish meals a week.


Nutritional Value is a column that focuses on athlete health and wellness. It appears regularly in Coach & Athletic Director magazine.


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