Versatile fish in weekly doses may keep you healthy

June 25, 2003|by LYNN F. LITTLE

Grill it, poach it, broil it, fry it. Any way you cook it, fish really is brain food, and research is proving fish also is good for your heart and prostate.

Fish, particularly fatty fish, is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to be beneficial in a myriad of ways. The American Heart Association recommends two servings weekly of fish such as mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna and salmon. All types of seafood contain omega-3 fatty acids, but the darker fish such as salmon contain more than lighter fish such as cod or halibut. Benefits to your heart may include: decreased risk of cardiac arrhythmias; decreased blood clot formation, sometimes involved in heart attacks and strokes; decreased triglyceride levels; decreased growth rate of atherosclerotic plaque; improved artery health; and lower blood pressure.

French researcher Pascale Barberger-Gateau found that just one serving of fish per week decreases the risk of developing dementia by 30 percent. Eating fatty fish several times a week also may lower the risk of developing prostate cancer by as much as half. A Swedish study of 3,500 postmenopausal women eating two servings of fatty fish per week found they were 40 percent less likely to develop endometrial cancer than those eating less than one-fourth of a serving per week.


Fish consumption during pregnancy may result in a lower risk of early delivery or low birth weight. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in particular is essential for infant brain and eye development. It may even help prevent postpartum depression.

However, be aware that several types of fish - swordfish, shark, king mackerel, tuna and tilefish - are unsafe in any amount for small children, pregnant or breastfeeding women and women who may become pregnant, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. These fish may contain high amounts of methylmercury, which has the potential to cause nervous system damage to a developing fetus and other damage children or pregnant women. Methylmercury is an industrial contaminant that sometimes finds its way into the waters in which fish live. The FDA states that no more than 12 ounces of cooked fish a week may be safely eaten by those in the high-risk groups, with choices coming from shellfish, canned fish, smaller ocean fish or farm-raised fish.

When shopping for fish, how do you know if it is fresh? Here are some clues:

  • The fish's eyes should be clear and bulge a little. Only a few fish, such as walleye, have naturally cloudy eyes.

  • Whole fish and fillets should have firm and shiny flesh. Dull flesh may mean the fish is old. Fresh, whole fish also should have bright red gills, free from slime.

  • The fish should spring back when pressed.

  • There should be no darkening around the edges of the fish, or discoloration.

  • The fish should smell fresh and mild, not fishy or ammonia-like.

It's always safest to cook seafood. The recommendation for cooking most seafood is to bring it to an internal temperature of 145 degrees for 15 seconds. If you don't have a meat thermometer, there are other ways to determine if seafood is done:

  • For fish, slip the point of a sharp knife into the flesh and pull aside. The edges should be opaque and the center slightly translucent with flakes beginning to separate. Let the fish stand three to four minutes to finish cooking.

  • For shrimp, lobster and scallops, check color. Shrimp and lobster turn red, and the flesh becomes pearly opaque. Scallops turn milky white or opaque and firm.

  • For clams, mussels and oysters, watch for the point at which their shells open. That means they're done. Throw out those that stay closed.

    For the latest in food safety information and consumer advisories, go to on the Web.

    Fish is loaded with health benefits when chosen with care and eaten in moderation. It needn't be expensive or difficult to prepare. Try sauting fish in olive or canola oil, adding pepper, garlic and tomatoes toward the end. Oven-poach fillets in skim milk, adding some bread crumbs, black pepper and Parmesan cheese on top. Try preparing a salmon steak on the grill.

    Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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