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The Power of Fish

Early Arctic explorers noted that the Eskimos, despite their consumption of high fat and high cholesterol foods, had a very low incidence of heart disease. Scientists and physicians were stumped at this and considered it a paradox; until, that is, they looked at their diets. What they found has changed the way nutrition and health care professionals prevent and treat heart disease today.

The Eskimo's diets were rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

Omega-3 fatty acids are called essential fatty acids because the human body needs them to survive but cannot make them on their own; they must be consumed in the diet. Their role in the prevention of heart disease has been extensively studied. Here's how omega-3 fatty acids may protect you from heart disease:

  • Reduces blood clot formation. Omega-3 fatty acids act as a natural anticoagulant by altering the ability of platelets in your blood to clump together.
  • Inhibits the growth of plaque. Omega-3 fatty acids help keep the lining of the arteries smooth and clear of damage that can lead to the thickening and hardening of the arteries.
  • Decreases triglycerides and very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL). High triglyceride values and VLDL cholesterol are associated with increased risk for heart disease. Omega-3 fatty acids decrease the rate at which these two substances are produced in the liver.
  • May increase levels of the good cholesterol, HDL. Through their mechanism in lowering triglyceride levels, omega-3 fatty acid intake may increase high-density lipoprotein (HDL). HDL is considered to protect against the development of heart disease.
  • Acts as an anti-inflammatory agent. The development of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) is thought to involve your body's inflammatory response. Omega-3 fatty acids reduce the production of substances that are released during the inflammatory response and in doing so, prevent substances from accumulating and sticking to the lining of the arteries.
  • May lower blood pressure. Several studies have examined the effect of omega-3 fatty acids on blood pressure. Those who eat fish tend to have lower incidence of high blood pressure.

Cold water varieties of fish like mackerel, tuna, salmon, sardines and herring contain high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. In order for you to benefit from omega-3 fats, the American Heart Association recommends most healthy people (with no history of heart disease) consume 2 meals of fish every week (about 6 ounces of fish). Review the table below for good sources of omega-3.


Amount of Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Selected Fish and Seafood
Serving Size
Amount of Omega-3 Fat
Atlantic Salmon or Herring
3 ounces cooked
1.9 grams
Blue Fin Tuna
3 ounces cooked
1.5 grams
Sardines, canned
3 oz. in tomato sauce
1.5 grams
Anchovies, canned
2 ounces drained
1.2 grams
Atlantic Mackerel
3 ounces cooked
1.15 grams
Salmon, canned
3 ounces drained
1.0 gram
3 ounces cooked
0.9. gram
Sea Bass (mixed species)
3 ounces cooked
0.65 gram
Tuna, white meat canned
3 ounces drained
0.5 gram
Sole, Flounder, Mussels
3 ounces cooked
0.4 gram
Wild Catfish, crabmeat, clams
3 ounces cooked/steamed
0.3 gram
Prawns (jumbo shrimp)
6 pieces
0.15 gram
Altantic Cod, Lobster
3 ounces cooked/steamed
0.15 gram
Trout, Orange roughy
3 ounces cooked
<0.1 gram

What if you don't like fish, have an allergy to fish, or are vegetarian? There are some plant sources that contain a precursor to omega-3 fatty acids in the body, called alpha-linolenic acid. However, alpha-linolenic acid is not converted to omega-3 fats as efficiently in the human body as that found in fish. Good plant sources of alpha-linolenic acid are flaxseeds, flax oil, canola oil, walnuts and soybean oil. Currently, there are no established serving size recommendations, but focus on adding these foods to your diet regularly, as they provide additional heart-health benefits. For example, some health professionals recommend adding 2 tablespoons of ground or milled flaxseed to your diet each day because it's also a good source of fiber and cancer-fighting lignin.

If you have heart disease, your health care professional may recommended you increase your food sources of omega-3 to reach a daily goal of 1 gram each day. If this amount is too difficult to achieve from diet alone, your health care professional may suggest a fish oil supplement. Read on to learn how to read fish oil supplement labels.
If you have elevated blood triglycerides your health care professional may also recommend you increase your food sources of omega-3. This includes people who may already be on medications used to lower triglyceride levels. If these strategies are not effective, you may be advised to incorporate fish oil supplements into your diet. To effectively lower triglycerides, 2-4 grams of omega-3 fatty acids are recommended daily.
Because omega-3 fatty acids aid in thinning the blood, caution should be taken with those using blood thinners (such as aspirin or warfarin), expecting to undergo surgery, or hemophiliacs. Always inform your health care provider if you are taking fish oil supplements.

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