The benefits of eating fish

Why is eating fish healthy?

Fish is a high-protein, low-fat food that provides a range of health benefits. White-fleshed fish, in particular, is lower in fat than any other source of animal protein, and oily fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids, or the "good" fats. Since the human body can’t make significant amounts of these essential nutrients, fish are an important part of the diet. Also, fish are low in the "bad" fats commonly found in red meat, called omega-6 fatty acids.

Why are omega-3s good for your health?

A growing body of evidence indicates that omega-3 fatty acids provide a number of health benefits. They:

  • help maintain cardiovascular health by playing a role in the regulation of blood clotting and vessel constriction;
  • are important for prenatal and postnatal neurological development;
  • may reduce tissue inflammation and alleviate the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis;
  • may play a beneficial role in cardiac arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), reducing depression and halting mental decline in older people.

The omega-3s found in fish (EPA and DHA) appear to provide the greatest health benefits. Fish that are high in omega-3s, low in environmental contaminants and eco-friendly include:

  • wild salmon from Alaska (fresh, frozen and canned),
  • Arctic char,
  • Atlantic mackerel,
  • sardines,
  • sablefish,
  • anchovies
  • farmed rainbow trout and
  • albacore tuna from the U.S. and Canada.

What about fish oil supplements?

Besides eating fish, another way to consume omega-3 fatty acids is by taking store-bought supplements. Fish oils come from both fish caught as food for humans and from small fish caught for animal feed, such as Peruvian anchovies.

A word of caution: contaminants such as PCBs accumulate in fish oil just as they do in fish, so make sure to buy capsules that are made from purified fish oil 

What are other sources of omega-3 fatty acids?

Alternative sources of omega-3s come from terrestrial sources like flaxseed, walnuts and wheat germ. While still beneficial, these do not appear to provide as a great a health benefit as the omega-3s found in fish, shellfish and marine algae.

Do the health benefits of omega-3s outweigh the risks associated with contaminants in seafood?

Fish is generally a healthy food source and can be safely eaten in most cases. But depending on your age and health circumstances, some people should limit the amounts of fish they eat. Consider the following:

  • For young children and women of childbearing age, excessive consumption of mercury-contaminated fish can severely impact a child's development.
  • Older women and men may find it an acceptable tradeoff to exceed recommended seafood meal limits to increase their omega-3 intake.
  • People at high risk of cardiovascular disease must weigh the cancer risk of eating fish high in PCBs with the benefits of eating fish high in omega-3s, in which case the benefits of omega-3s may outweigh the cancer risk (1 in 100,000 - the level recommended by the EPA). However, these chemicals are known to cause serious health problems besides cancer, so the tradeoffs are not simple.
  • The good news is that there are several low-contaminant, high-omega-3 seafood options available (see list above), so there’s no need to risk eating contaminated fish.