Health experts have long recommended eating at least two servings of fish each week for heart health because fish contains essential omega-3 fatty acids. But there are so many choices — and concerns about toxins — to consider.
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Registered dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, LD, offers help in navigating the ocean (and lake!) of fish choices to get the recommended amount of omega-3 in your diet.
What are the benefits of eating fish?
Omega-3 fatty acids are called essential fats because we need them to survive. The tricky thing is that our bodies cannot produce these types of acid.
This is where fish comes in.
“Fish is the number one source of omega-3 fatty acids,” says Zumpano. “Just to make it more interesting, fish provide two types of omega-3 fatty acids that our bodies need called EPA and DHA.”
EPA stands for eicosapentaenoic acid and DHA stands for docosahexaenoic acid. Some plant-based foods provide the omega-3 fatty acid ALA (alphalinolenic acid).
“Omega-3 improves cardiovascular health at a dosage between 1-4 grams each day,” she says. “It also lowers the risk of death for people with cardiovascular disease and abnormal heart rhythms.”
Omega-3 lowers their risk of death by:
- Reducing the risk of blood clots.
- Keeping plaque from forming on the arteries.
- Decreasing triglyceride levels in the blood.
- Slightly Lowers blood pressure.
- Slowing production of substances that cause inflammation in the body.
Heart disease plays a role in how much fish you should eat, too. If you have no history of heart disease, eat at least 6 to 8 ounces a week, which is about two servings. FDA guidelines say healthy adults can eat up to 12 ounces of fish each week. If you do have heart disease, stick to about 1 gram of omega-3 per day. Your doctor may even recommend supplements, but it varies on your condition, so be sure to consult your doctor about how much you should eat.
Best fish sources of omega-3 fatty acids
- Mackerel (Atlantic) – 2.5 to 2.6 grams
- Salmon (Atlantic and farmed) – 1.8 grams
- Herring – 1.7 to 1.2 grams
- Tuna – Bluefin – 1.6 grams
- Lake trout – 1.6 to 1.3 grams
- Catfish (farmed) – 1.15 grams
- Anchovy – 1.4 grams
- Tuna – Albacore – 1.3 grams
- Lake white fish (freshwater) – 1.3 grams
- Sardines – 1.3 grams
- Bluefish – 1.2 grams
- Halibut – 0.9 grams
- Pollock – 0.9 grams
- Striped bass – 0.8 grams
- Sea bass (mixed species) – 0.65 grams
- Tuna, white meat canned (drained) – 0.5 grams
- Flounder or sole – 0.48 grams
- Shrimp – 0.29 grams
“Eat a variety of fish to help minimize potential adverse effects of mercury and environmental pollutants,” says Zumpano. “Be sure to check local and state advisories about the safety of fish caught in local lakes, rivers and coastal areas.”
What about environmental toxins in fish?
The risks of eating fish vary depending on age and health. The American Heart Association says the benefits of eating fish outweigh the risks for most healthy adults.
“Children and women who are pregnant or nursing should avoid eating fish high in mercury,” she adds. “Some fish contain higher levels of mercury and environmental toxins. Possible exposure to toxins can be reduced by removing skin and surface fat before cooking, too.”
The five popular fish (or shellfish) that are lower in mercury include shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock and catfish. On the other hand, the worst offenders are older and larger fish like shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish like golden bass or golden snapper.
What if I don’t like fish or I’m allergic to it?
Not everyone enjoys fish or can eat it due to allergies. You’re in luck, because plant-based foods also contain omega-3 fatty acids (ALA), although in much smaller amounts than fish.
Zumpano recommends these:
- Flaxseed (milled or oil).
- Soy foods.
- Canola oil.
- Algae or algae oil.
- Foods fortified with omega-3 algae oil.
- Chia seeds.
- Hemp seeds.
“Adding these to your diet has some heart-health benefits,” she says. “However, there are no established serving size recommendations to get your omega-3 from them.”