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Oily fish - what is it good for?

WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

Most of us should probably be eating more oily fish. We know it's good for us, but generally we don't eat enough of it.

What's so special about oily fish? It's a useful source of vitamins and minerals and is also high in omega-3 fatty acids, which may help keep your heart healthy.

The benefits of a diet of oily fish were brought to public attention by research in the 1970s showing that Eskimos were less prone to heart attacks and strokes. This was put down, in part, to their diet rich in oily fish.

"Oily fish is an excellent source of lean protein and provides other important nutrients including minerals such as iron, zinc, selenium and iodine and vitamins A and D," says Angela Tella, dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association.

The Government's nutrition experts recommend that a healthy diet should have at least two portions of fish a week and one of them should be oily.

Oily fish are fish that have a naturally darker colour, like salmon, tuna, and whitebait. They’re rich in omega-3 fats, especially EPA and DHA, two omega-3 fats essential for health.

But why is oily fish good for you? We've looked at the evidence and have spoken to the experts.

Oily fish for heart health

Oily fish is best known for its potential effect on heart health.

Early research suggests that the omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish helps keep your heart rhythm healthy by reducing blood pressure and blood triglyceride (a type of blood fat) levels.

A large review in 2004 by the UK Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) found at the time there was a large body of evidence to suggest that eating fish, especially oily fish, reduced the risk of heart disease.

Research from Japan in 2008 also suggested that oily fish in your diet could lessen the risk of stroke.

"Evidence has suggested that oily fish may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by reducing blood pressure and reducing the build-up of fat in the arteries," says Chloe Miles, spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association.

"Oily fish, such as salmon and fresh tuna, contain long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, which may help to keep your heart healthy," says Tracy Parker, senior dietitian at the British Heart Foundation.

"Omega-3 fatty acids help decrease triglycerides, and reduce inflammation and blood clotting. The benefit seems to come from eating oily fish rather than from supplements," adds Tracy.

"Oily fish also reduces the stickiness of blood thereby reducing the risk of blood clots," says Angela.

Oily fish after a heart attack

NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) guidelines on eating oily fish changed in 2013. Up until then it recommended that people who'd had a heart attack increase oily fish intake to two to four portions a week.

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