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The low-cholesterol diet: Fatty fish

The right fish can do wonders for your heart
By R. Morgan Griffin
WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

The term "fatty fish" may sound unappealing, but actually these are the tastiest and healthiest foods from the sea. Oily fish such as salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel and trout are full of Omega-3 fatty acids -- good fats unlike the bad saturated fat you find in most meats. These fish should be a staple of everyone's diet to help maintain heart.

How does fish help?

The NHS says "There is evidence that omega-3 fatty acids, primarily those found in oily fish, when eaten as part of a healthy diet, can help maintain a healthy heart and reduce risk of heart disease." The British Heart Foundation concurs:  "It is well established that a dietary intake of omega-3 is good for heart health. Oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel or sardines, is a nutritious source of omega-3."

Studies suggest omega-3 fatty acids may lower triglycerides, which are a type of fat in the bloodstream. Experts aren't sure of the exact mechanism. Omega-3 fatty acids may also slow down the growth of plaques in the arteries and reduce inflammation throughout the body.

What's the evidence?

A number of studies going back years have shown the benefits of fatty fish. In an important review of studies, researchers found that getting daily Omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil could lower triglyceride levels by 25%-30%. The results were published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 1997.

Researchers in the UK also found that Omega-3 fatty acids prevent blood clots by making platelets less likely to clump together and stick to artery walls. Blood vessels are also less likely to constrict, and the heart is less vulnerable to life-threatening irregular heart rates.

Getting fatty fish into your diet

Fatty fish typically are cold-water fish. You have many good choices when it comes to fatty fish:

  • Salmon
  • Fresh tuna
  • Trout
  • Herring
  • Sardines
  • Mackerel

85 grams of salmon alone offers about 1 gram of EPA and DHA. If these fish aren't to your taste, you can also try white fish such as halibut or trout. A 100 gram serving of trout offers about 1 gram of EPA, plus DHA.

One important point to keep in mind: How you prepare the fish is almost as important as which type of fish you eat.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) recommends poaching fish in an oven or steaming it without the need for butter or oil. Alternatively, put the fish under a grill or, for a particularly tasty result, onto a barbecue.

You can also get a very quick and tasty meal by microwaving salmon and other fish. It only takes a few minutes. One big advantage is that you don't dry out the fish, which is easy to do using more conventional methods.

Tinned fish is a great store-cupboard standby, according to the FSA. It recommends sardines on toast for a quick snack.

How much fish do you need?

“Most people should be eating more oily fish”, says the Food Standards Agency. However, because oily fish can contain low levels of pollutants, current recommendations are two portions of oily fish a week for girls and women who might have a baby one day. The FSA says that other women, as well as men and boys, can eat four portions a week.

What if you just can't stand fish?

There are other ways to get Omega-3 fatty acids: try flaxseed oil, rape seed oil, walnuts and Omega-3 enriched eggs.

Calories count

Remember, fatty fish is still fatty. While the omega-3 fatty acids have lots of benefits, they're also high in calories. You'll gain weight if you overeat these fish.

Reviewed on July 28, 2011

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