Omega-3 fatty acids have been proven to benefit cardiovascular health. As one of the most abundant food sources of omega-3s, many suggest eating lots of fish helps maintain a healthy heart. However, polluted waterways – which can leave mercury in some marine creatures – have dampened recommendations encouraging regular fish consumption. Choosing fish that is high in omega-3s and skipping ones loaded with mercury can help those searching for heart healthy options get the most from their fish monger.
In 2002, the American Heart Association (AHA) released a scientific statement, “Fish Consumption, Fish Oil, Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Cardiovascular Disease,” on the effects of omega-3 fatty acids on cardiovascular health. The AHA confirmed that research has demonstrated omega-3 fatty acids to have the following benefits:
- decrease risk of arrhythmias, which can lead to sudden cardiac death
- decrease triglyceride levels
- decrease growth rate of atherosclerotic plaque
- lower blood pressure
Based on this review, the AHA recommends eating fish (particularly fatty fish) at least two times a week. Besides their high omega-3 content, fish is a good source of protein without the high levels of saturated fat harbored by red meat.
Based on the heart health properties of omega-3 fatty acids, the AHA advises the following amounts for different people:
- Those without coronary heart disease – Eat a variety of (preferably fatty) fish at least twice a week.
- Those with coronary heart disease – Consume about 1 gram of omega-3s per day, preferably from fatty fish. Omega-3s in capsule form could be considered in consultation with the physician.
- Those who need to lower their triglycerides – 2 to 4 grams of omega-3s per day provided as capsules under a physician’s care.
While eating fish with the highest concentration of omega-3s can help your heart, there are also fish that must be avoided. However, don’t let the risk of contamination eliminate fish from your food choices. Eating one to two 6-ounce servings of omega-3-rich fish each week reduces your risk of dying from heart disease by an astonishing 36 percent.
Fish that are high in omega-3s include:
- Herring and Sardines – Depending on the species and how it was prepared, three ounces of herring gives 1.3 to 2 g of omega-3s. Three ounces of sardines canned in oil deliver 0.8 g of omega-3s.
- Mackerel – Three ounces of most species of cooked mackerel provide 1.1 to 1.7 g of omega-3 fats. Because they are high in omega-3s and low in mercury, select smaller species like Atlantic (Boston), Pacific (Jack) and Spanish mackerel.
- Salmon – A three ounce serving of salmon yields between 0.9 to 1.8 g of omega-3s. Wild-caught Pacific salmon and Alaskan salmon are good choices because they come from well-managed fisheries with clean waters. While farmed salmon is high in omega-3s, it also may be full of antibiotics, PCBs or dioxins.
- Trout – Freshwater trout typically offers 0.8 to 1.0 g of omega-3 fats in a 3-ounce serving. Almost all commercially available rainbow trout are farmed, but most trout farmers use vaccines instead of antibiotics.
- Tuna – The amount of omega-3 fats in tuna varies greatly, from 0.3 g in 3 ounces of fresh yellowfin to 0.8 g in canned albacore (white) to 1.4 g in fresh bluefin. The best choice is canned tuna because it comes from smaller, younger fish and therefore has less mercury than fresh tuna. Choose canned tuna packed in water rather than oil because it retains more of its omega-3 fats after draining. Fresh tuna steaks come from larger, older fish, which harbor the highest mercury levels. In addition, the tuna steaks sold in the U.S. are usually yellowfin, a species with low levels of omega-3 fat.
- Anchovies – Although few people would actually eat this amount, 3 ounces of anchovies provide 1.8 g of omega-3 fats.
- Mussels and Oysters – These are the most omega-3-rich shellfish, providing 0.7 and 0.6 g of omega-3 fats, respectively.
- Sablefish – Three ounces of sablefish (sometimes called black cod) offers 1.7 g of omega-3 fats.
- Smelts – In 3 ounces of these small, mild fish, you’ll get 0.8 g of omega-3 fats.
- Whitefish – Three ounces of this sweet, delicately flavored freshwater fish deliver 1.6 g of omega-3 fats. (Don’t confuse them with flounder, haddock, or other lean fish generally referred to as “whitefish.”)
Fish high in mercury that should be avoided include:
- King Mackerel – 0.73 parts per million mercury concentration
- Shark – 0.99 parts per million mercury concentration
- Swordfish – 0.98 parts per million mercury concentration
- Tilefish (Gulf of Mexico) – 1.45 parts per million mercury concentration
Omega-3 fatty acids’ benefit to cardiovascular health is irrefutable. As the best food source of omega-3s, eating fish is an obvious choice. However, all fish is not created equal. By choosing the fish highest in omega-3s and avoiding those high in mercury, you can be confident your seafood picks will support a healthy heart.
*Editor’s note – Anyone taking more than 3 grams of omega-3 fatty acids from capsules should do so only under a physician’s care. High intakes could cause excessive bleeding in prone individuals.