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Not only is fish delicious, it’s good for you. A low-fat, high-protein powerhouse packed with omega-3 fatty acids, fish offers a wide range of health benefits, from keeping your brain and heart functioning properly to helping ease symptoms of depression, and even keeping your skin and hair looking radiant.
The omega-3 fatty acids fish contains (especially EPA and DHA) are a necessary component of the human brain, playing a vital role in a variety of cognitive functions.
“Consuming EPA and DHA supports the health of the brain at all stages of life,” says Christie Naze, a registered dietitian with The Heart’s Kitchen. “It is beginning to become clear that low DHA status may be a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia, and with cognitive impairment associated with aging.”
Medical evidence suggests that eating fish on a regular basis—two or three times a week—may help to reduce the incidence of heart disease.
“Fish has anti-inflammatory benefits,” explains Marcy Kirshenbaum, a clinical nutritionist with Enhance Nutrition LLC in Northbrook. “Population studies have demonstrated that people who eat omega-3 rich diets have reduced cardiovascular risks including lower LDL cholesterol, lower triglycerides, and lower blood pressure.”
Feeling blue? Eat some fish. Research has discovered links between low omega-3 levels and higher incidences of depression, seasonal affective disorder, and postpartum depression.
“By supporting the brain with healthy anti-inflammatory fats, depression may decrease,” Kirshenbaum says. “Omega-3 is an important part of healthy cell membranes, which must be fluid and flexible to function properly. Nerve cells depend on membrane fluidity, so a reduction in fluidity can impact behavior, mood, and mental function.”
She adds that as with any health condition, overall lifestyle changes will have the most impact. “Omega-3 is just a small piece of those changes.”
DHA plays a huge role in the health of a growing fetus, contributing heavily to the development of a baby’s brain and central nervous system.
“DHA is preferentially incorporated into the rapidly developing brain from about 24 weeks gestation through two years of age,” Naze says. “The mother is the sole source of omega-3 fats for the developing fetus and exclusively breast-fed infant, and the best direct source for the mom comes from eating fish and seafood.”
Kirshenbaum points out that it’s important for pregnant women to eat fish in moderation, and make sure they’re choosing fatty fish low in mercury and other harmful substances.
The omega-3 fats in fish help boost collagen production for healthy skin and hair, and may even provide a degree of protection from harmful UV rays.
“So many of the benefits of omega-3 have to do with it being an important part of cell membrane fluidity,” Kirshenbaum reiterates. “Healthy cell membranes act as a barrier to regulate the proper movement of molecules into and out of the cell. One aspect of this is maintaining cell hydration, which reduces dry skin.”
To reap the most benefit, the best fish choices are cold-water species with high levels of omega-3 fatty acids—salmon, tuna, sardines, anchovies and herring. Aim for two or more servings a week as part of a whole-foods diet. And remember, not all fish is created equal.
“Although you may think by eating salmon you’re ingesting all that great omega-3 fat, you may actually be getting 50 percent less by eating farmed salmon,” Kirshenbaum said. “When choosing fish, look for wild-caught; in terms of salmon, wild Alaskan is believed to have the most health benefits.”
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