We’ve been hearing for a long time now that fish and other types of seafood are good for us. Current recommendations tell us to aim to eat “two fish meals a week.” But fish has some fishy aspects to it, like mercury. And what about all that cholesterol in shellfish? Do fish sticks count towards your two weekly fish meals? Let’s find out the facts about fish.
Fish fact #1: Frozen fish can be just as good as fresh fish.
Frozen fish has often been frozen on the boat right after being caught. The flash-freezing process that’s used keeps the fish at temperatures lower than your home freezer. Some “fresh” fish, on the other hand, is fish that was previously frozen or fish that’s been sitting around for a few days. When choosing frozen fish, look for either vacuum-sealed fish or fish with a thick coating of ice on it.
Fish fact #2: Freshwater fish is just as good for you as saltwater fish.
When we think of fish, what often comes to mind are omega-3 fatty acids, which are present in fish oils. Fish that are high in omega-3s include salmon, herring, and tuna, which are saltwater fish. But freshwater fish from cold water contain these healthful fats, too. Fish like trout contain decent amounts. Omega-3 fatty acids are thought to help lower blood pressure, lower blood triglyceride levels, reduce inflammation in the body, and possibly even help alleviate depression.
Fish fact #3: Shellfish is higher in cholesterol than fish, but it’s low in saturated fat.
If you live on the east coast, you know how popular clams (“steamers,” “littlenecks”) are in the summertime. But, if your blood cholesterol is on the high side, you might be worried that clams (along with shrimp, lobster, and other shellfish) are too high in cholesterol for you to eat. Relax. OK, shellfish does contain a moderate amount of cholesterol (3 ounces of clams has 57 milligrams). But cholesterol in food is different than cholesterol in your blood and has little, if any, affect on it. What seems to be the driving factor for blood cholesterol is saturated fat (and even that is in question by some health experts). Shellfish has a lot going for it: It’s low in fat and saturated fat, it’s high in protein, and it’s a good source of certain vitamins and minerals. As with fish, you can purchase shellfish fresh, frozen, or canned.
Fish fact #4: You can still enjoy fish despite the fact that it may contain mercury.
Mercury is a toxic metal that is emitted from power plants, chemical manufacturers, and other industrial facilities. When it’s released into the environment, it can settle in oceans and waterways. Mercury is absorbed by bacteria in the water, which is then consumed by small fish. The mercury works its way up the food chain, building up at high levels. Predatory fish, like swordfish, tuna, and shark can have levels of mercury 10,000 times higher than their surrounding environment. Consuming mercury from food can lead to neurological problems, high blood pressure, vision and memory loss, and tremors. Mercury can affect a child’s development, leading to learning disabilities and motor function problems. Fortunately, you don’t have to stop eating fish. But it’s a good idea to limit high-mercury fish, including swordfish, tilefish, shark, and king mackerel. For a listing of low and high mercury fish, click here.
Fish fact #5: Fish sticks just aren’t that healthful.
No surprise here. Sure, frozen breaded fish sticks are quick and easy — pop them in the oven or microwave and you’ve got a fast snack or meal. And kids think they’re great. But take a close look at the Nutrition Facts label on the box. Take Van de Kamp’s fish sticks, for example. One serving is roughly 2 sticks, and that serving contains 230 calories, 10 grams of fat, 2.5 grams of saturated fat, and 480 milligrams of sodium. Because of the breading, a serving also contains 22 grams of carbohydrate. Try making your own baked fish sticks, instead. They’re much healthier and they only take about 15 minutes to cook. Here’s a recipe.
Fish fact #6: Eating fish may raise your good (HDL) cholesterol.
HDL cholesterol is considered to be “good” because it helps move cholesterol out of your arteries. It’s hard to raise HDL levels, though. Exercise can help a little. Now, Finnish researchers have found that eating 3–4 fish meals per week helps increase levels of large HDL particles that are thought to protect against heart disease. In the study, participants ate fatty fish like salmon, trout, herring, and vendance, a freshwater fish found in Europe. No butter or cream was used in the fish preparation.
Make fish a regular part of your eating plan. If you prefer fresh, choose fish that has a fresh, sea smell, not a fishy smell. The flesh should be firm to the touch. And don’t buy fish that’s more than a day old.