Monday Medical: Go fishing for your health

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Go fish

Try to catch the following "oily" fish for your plate: salmon, trout, mackerel, herring, sardines, pilchards, kipper, eel, whitebait, tuna (fresh only), anchovies, swordfish, bloater, cacha, carp, hilsa, jack fish, katla, orange roughy, pangas, and sprats.

Do you have any omega-3s? No? "Go fish!"

Remember this classic card game? The more sets of cards you get, the better your chances of winning. When it comes to fighting heart disease, there are some fats you want to collect to win the battle and some you want to avoid.

Fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6 are two of the "better" fats to try to get in your diet because of their role in heart health, among other benefits. These two fatty acids are so important to health and body function, they literally are labeled "essential."

Most Americans already get their omega-6s through plant oils (corn oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil), nuts and seeds. Therefore the balance weighs more toward omega-6s than omega-3s. The one tactic to maintain a healthy ratio? Eat more fish.

Oily fish such as salmon, fresh tuna - not canned - lake trout, herring, anchovies and sardines are the best source of omega-3s. Not all fish are created equal. Popular non-oily, or "white fish" fish such as tilapia, sea bass, snapper, cod, catfish and halibut are low in omega-3s and could weigh the scale too heavily toward omega-6.

If you are wondering where we got the idea to eat all this oily fish, look north. Scientists first discovered some fats are actually good because of studies of Inuit populations in Alaska, Canada and Greenland. In spite of their high-fat diets, the Inuit had a remarkably low rate of heart disease.

"They were eating a high-fat diet: walrus meat, whale blubber and cold-water fish," Jenny Thomsen, registered dietician at Yampa Valley Medical Center, said. "Researchers asked, 'What is it about this diet?' The answer was the beneficial oils in the fatty fish."

Thomsen explains that these studies were a key discovery for heart health.

"These fats help with heart disease because they lower triglycerides in plasma, which lowers your risk of coronary artery disease," Thomsen said. "They also can lower your blood pressure."

Additionally, omega-3s increase circulation because they make the platelets in your blood less sticky, Thomsen said.

The American Heart Association announced earlier this year that omega-6 along with omega-3 fatty acids can have many health benefits when consumed in the recommended amounts. Some experts think they are beneficial for heart and brain function, normal growth and development, as well as other diseases such as cancer, diabetes, arthritis and lupus.

Thomsen agrees wholeheartedly.

"I am not only telling you, I'm living it," Thomsen said.

To lower her risk of coronary heart disease, her doctor recommended that Thomsen increase her omega-3 intake through her diet.

"The key for me was increasing my fish consumption," she said. "By eating my physician's recommendation, I was able to lower my triglycerides and cholesterol."

For some, fish oil supplements can aid in the increase of omega-3s. Thomsen warns that not all fish oil supplements are alike. It is best to consult your physician or a registered dietitian to help you find the best solution.

Those who are at risk for or have diagnosed coronary heart disease should talk to their doctor about their fatty acid intake. Otherwise, the common recommendation is add a 3-ounce portion of oily fish to your menu at least twice weekly.

Thomsen, who counsels outpatients through YVMC's Nutrition Services program, said there are many ways to add fish to your diet.

"Fish can be served hot or cold, as a main course or side dish," she said.

Thomsen suggested bagels and lox and light cream cheese for breakfast, or smoked salmon on crackers as an appetizer. It's easy to add fish to a salad; just ask for extra anchovies on that Caesar.

Plus, more oily fish on your weekly menu means you are most likely eating less red meat, which contains "bad" saturated fat. However, meat and fish are good sources of protein. As always, it is important to eat a variety of foods for good health.

"It gives us hope," Thomsen said, referring to connection between eating more fish and reducing the risk of heart disease. "I'm living proof that changing your diet can change your life."

Riley Polumbus is communications specialist at Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at riley.polumbus@yvmc.org

Yampa Valley Medical Center's Nutrition Services offers education and counseling on many different topics to help maintain health, improve health and manage health problems. To schedule an appointment call 870-1048.

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