Monday Medical: Eat fish for a healthy heart

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On a recent trip through the Yampa Valley Medical Center cafeteria, I was having difficulty choosing just one entree. "They all look so good," I told Kent, the chef. "So," he said, "you'll take the chicken, right?"

I started to agree when he encouraged me to try the fish instead. Suddenly, the baked cod with a lemon-tarragon sauce seemed to be exactly what I wanted. And it was delicious.

Like many adults, I know that eating fish regularly is a healthy thing to do, yet I don't always remember this when I'm in the grocery store or ordering from a restaurant menu.

Studies proving the health benefits of fish abound. In the early 1940s, a British scientist observed that the Inuit people (Eskimos) ate an extremely high-fat diet, yet had surprisingly low rates of heart disease and stroke. Fish seemed to be the protective dietary ingredient.

During the past several decades, researchers have found an association between frequent fish consumption and a lower rate of heart disease. The most important health benefits are related to the omega-3 fatty acids that are abundant in fatty fish such as that eaten by the Inuits: salmon, mackerel, halibut, trout, tuna, herring and sardines.

According to the Physicians' Health Study, the chance of dying suddenly from a heart attack was 80 percent lower among men with the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids compared with those with the lowest levels.

Irregular heartbeat and increased heart rate are frequent causes of sudden cardiac death. Two fatty acids abundant in fish regulate and stabilize the heartbeat and even lower the heart rate.

Omega-3 fatty acids also have been found to lower triglycerides and increase levels of the good cholesterol, HDL. They make blood platelets less sticky, lowering the risk of clotting. And they may reduce inflammation in the body and make blood vessels more elastic, improving blood flow.

Not all fish is good for you, though. Fish burgers and fried fish filets do not raise omega-3 levels. Better choices are a broiled salmon steak or tuna salad, light on the mayonnaise. A 3-ounce serving of salmon provides about one gram of the beneficial fatty acids, EPA and DHA.

Some kinds of fish have higher levels of mercury than others. Thus, a high-fish diet is not recommended for children or for pregnant or lactating women. To maximize health benefits and reduce dangers associated with polluted waters, doctors recommend eating a variety of fish.

For example, king mackerel is high in mercury, but other types of mackerel are not. Shark, tilefish and sword fish tend to have relatively high levels of mercury, so don't overindulge. Canned tuna -- which comes from smaller, younger fish -- has less mercury on average than fresh tuna.

Several popular and readily available kinds of fish are farm-raised. Although they are considerably less expensive than their wild counterparts, farm-raised fish may contain environmental contaminants. At this time, it is thought that the benefits of eating fish outweigh the potential health threats.

The American Heart Association recommends that individuals with heart disease consume specific amounts of EPA and DHA. One gram of each is the recommended daily intake for heart patients; people who have high triglycerides should have two to four grams daily. The AHA states that, for some, fish oil supplements might be necessary. Supplements should be taken only with physician advice.

Most people do not have to settle for a tasteless pill. Find a simple but tasty recipe and pick out a fresh salmon steak or rainbow trout filet for dinner. You probably won't be thinking of your heart or your doctor when you enjoy the rich flavors of fish.

Christine McKelvie is public relations director of Yampa Valley Medical Center.

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