These essential nutrients are called omega-3 fatty acids and they are quite powerful. Found naturally in fish oils, seeds and nuts, they are are responsible for lowering the level of triglycerides (fat) in the blood, thus helping to prevent heart disease and even stroke [source].
A 2008 study published by the American College of Cardiology found that Japanese men, who lived in Japan and consumed a diet rich in seafood, had twice the level of omega-3 fatty acids in their blood as middle-aged white men and Japanese American men in the US. They also had lower levels of atherosclerosis, or plaque buildup inside the arteries, which can lead to heart attack [source].
If you are still not sold on the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, newer research suggests that they may also play an important role in reducing depression, improving inflammatory arthritis conditions and preventing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia [source].
Oily fish such as salmon and tuna are rich in vitamins A and D and loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, thanks to the amount of oils in their tissues, belly cavity and around their gut. White fish on the other hand, like cod and haddock, only contain oils in their liver and therefore have less omega-3 fatty acids [source].
While oily fish may seem like the clear choice for your next meal, there is a catch (no pun intended).
Some large oily varieties are known to carry higher amounts of contaminants like mercury or PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) than other fish. Mercury in particular is a hazardous and sometimes deadly toxin that can accumulate in the body and lead to permanent kidney or brain damage. For this reason, many food and drug associations urge pregnant women, nursing mothers and small children under the age of six to consume less than two small portions of low-mercury fish per week.*
But don’t worry, there are still plenty of fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids and low in contaminants that you can safely eat (and should) at least 2-3 times a week to maintain proper heart health. Start with these top five:
Mercury content: Low
Omega-3 fatty acids: 3.4 g/6 oz. portion**
Don’t be deceived by their size, anchovies are chock-full of essential minerals such as iron, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus—as well as omega-3 fatty acids. Plus they contain very little mercury or other toxins, making them one healthy little fish!
But before you scarf down a whole tin, keep in mind that canned anchovies are often high in sodium due to the salty brine in which they are preserved. To eliminate the excess salt, a good rule of thumb is to rinse the fillets or soak them in cold water for 15-30 minutes before incorporating them into your recipe or eating them raw.
2. Wild Salmon
Mercury content: Low
Omega-3 fatty acids: 3.2 g/6 oz. portion**
Wild salmon may be more expensive than farmed varieties but you can rest assured it has more omega-3 fatty acids per serving and fewer toxins. It also boasts more calcium, iron, potassium and zinc, with half the fat and 1.3% less sodium than farmed salmon.
Additionally, many farmed varieties contain elevated levels of PCBs and live off an unhealthy diet of fish meal and antibiotics. The techniques used to raise them are also considered harmful to the environment spreading waste, chemicals, disease and parasites (sea lice, for example) to nearby waters and wild life. Instead wild salmon, like those caught in Alaska’s fisheries, are closely monitored to maintain strict population quotas and quality water/ habitat standards. This is good for you and the environment!
3. Sardines (Pacific)
Mercury content: Low
Omega-3 fatty acids: 2.8 g / 6 oz. portion**
Another small fish with a big bite: Sardines are rich in vitamin D, calcium and potassium, in addition to omega-3s. Named after the Italian island of Sardinia where they were once plentiful, they feed mostly on plankton and have low levels of mercury and other contaminates thanks to their tiny size.
4. Atlantic Mackerel
Mercury content: Low
Omega-3 fatty acids: 2.0 g / 6 oz. portion**
Atlantic Mackerel, not to be confused with the Spanish or King varieties which should be avoided, is found in the Northern Atlantic Ocean and considered to be a great source of vitamin b12, omega-3s and phosphatidylserine. The latter is an important compound that may help reduce the risk of developing dementia or cognitive dysfunction.
The Atlantic Mackerel is known for its strong, rich flavour and is commonly served as sashimi, canned in tomato sauce or enjoyed over a fresh salad.
Mercury content: Moderate to High
Omega-3 fatty acids: 1.4 g / 6 oz. portion**
Ah yes, the mighty tuna. Delicious and rich in omega-3s fatty acids, but perhaps not as good for you as you thought. Due to their large size and high position on the food chain, some tuna varieties like Albacore, Bluefish and Yellowfin have moderate to high mercury content and should be consumed no more than three times a month.
Ahi and Bigeye tuna on the other hand are considered to have the highest levels of mercury content and should be avoided when possible.
As a commercially popular fish, tuna is in high demand with many varieties (like the much coveted Bluefin) approaching near extinction due to constant overfishing. Many species have been placed on the Greenpeace red list for being obtained from unsustainable fisheries that do not respect best practice standards and population quotas.
So which IS the right kind of tuna to eat? The answer is Albacore, but only if it is troll- or pole-caught in cold, northern waters. These fishing techniques generally catch younger and smaller tuna that have fewer toxins than their older and larger counterparts in the southern waters.
To be sure you are getting the right kind of tuna ask your fisher where it’s from and how it was caught, if they don’t know the answer you might want to find a provider who does. If you’re buying canned tuna, check the label for information on fishing methods: if it doesn’t say it’s sustainable, then don’t buy it!
*For a full list of high, moderate and low mercury fish click here.
** All omega-3 fatty acid values were referenced from the University of Michigan Integrative Medicine.
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