Everyone always hears that they should be eating fish twice a week. But do you ever wonder how important eating fish is for women? What kinds are better for you? And is it really that safe?
No doubt, fish provide an excellent source of protein–and oily fish, in particular, such as salmon, tuna, and sardines, are rich in omega-3 fatty acids which are most known to help lower our risk of heart disease. And the truth is cardiovascular disease (CVD) continues to be the leading cause of death among women in the United States (about one in every three female deaths).
The key types of omega-3 fatty acids are EPA, DHA and ALA.. EPA and DHA can be found mostly in seafood while ALA can be found in walnuts and flaxseed. ALA also supports heart health and brain health but must be converted to EPA and DHA to be useful to your body. For your best health, you should be sure you’re getting enough EPA and DHA because these are active forms of omega-3s needed by your body and brain. EPA and DHA are mostly found in marine plants and animals such as fish, krill, and algae. The essential omega-3 fatty acids in fish are needed for creating and maintaining cell membranes, producing and synthesizing hormones (hello ladies!) and regulating gene expression. And recently, research has shown that the fatty acids from fish may protect the brain against Alzheimer’s disease.
For women who are in their childbearing years, omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to be important for baby’s brain development. In fact, a recent study of 279 mothers found that moms who consume large amounts of fish during pregnancy have children who outperform those who didn’t in developmental tests. And, a recent study from the Harvard School of Public Health found that couples who ate seafood at least twice a week were more likely to get pregnant within a year compared to couples who ate seafood only once a month.
Fish are also an excellent source of Vitamin D and selenium which are essential for hormone support. A diet rich in fish (and legumes) may help delay the onset of natural menopause (study) which may decrease a woman’s risk of osteoporosis and heart disease. In addition, smaller studies suggest that omega-3 intake during peri-menopause may help alleviate depressive symptoms and hot flashes.
So which fish are the best?
Oily fish such as herring, salmon, mackerel, sardines, trout, oysters and mussels contain the highest levels of omega-3s and the least amount of mercury, which is the contaminant of most concern today. Very high levels of mercury can damage nerves in adults and disrupt development of the brain and nervous system in a fetus or young child. Fish that contain high levels of mercury and therefore should be avoided are shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish. If you enjoy albacore tuna, try to limit your consumption to a few times per month. Pregnant women are advised to eat low-mercury fish two times per week but some experts recommend relying on fish oil during the early months of pregnancy while baby’s immune and nervous systems are still developing.
For a great resource to help you at the market, download the Seafood Watch mobile app from the Monterey Bay Aquarium or use this helpful guide from the Natural Resources Defense Council. You can also consider buying your seafood online at Vital Choice, a company that carefully curates its fish products and ships them directly to you (and whom I have no affiliation with, I just do my homework!)
In addition, due to the increasing lack of supply of clean, quality fish and other contaminants such as antibiotics showing up in our lakes and seas, organic farm-raised fish should now be on your radar. While traditionally farm-raised fish have been found to be more contaminated and contain less omega-3s, the growing field of aquaculture is advancing to meet the demand for seafood in a more responsible manner. Some experts now recommend eating a mix of wild and farm-raised seafood.
How much should I eat? And is there a best way to eat it?
The American Heart Association's guidelines recommend at least two 3.5-ounce servings a week and many women can benefit from more. But most women are only getting one at most. Many women report they simply don’t know how to prepare fish so that it is easy and tasty. Canned Wild Alaskan Salmon and sardines are quick and easy protein sources to serve up with a meal when you don’t have time to cook. And baked, broiled or poached are simple, delicious ways to serve fish - you can add fresh herbs like parsley, thyme and oregano with lemon, lime or grapefruit zest for great flavor.
Or check out some of my own favorite recipes:
What about fish oil? Can I just take that?
Many experts believe the best way to consume omega-3 fats is to eat fish, rather than taking supplements, which do not provide the same benefits.. However, fish oil supplementation is important for those who do not consume fish or do not get enough from their diet. Additionally, supplementing with fish oil has been shown to reduce the release of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline during stressful situations.
It is important to ensure that your fish oil supplements are are carefully sourced from a species at the bottom of the food chain and properly processed and stored to prevent oxidation, e.g. inflammation hijackers. Brands I like include Nordic Naturals and Rosita Extra Virgin Cod Liver Oil (the one I take). Vegans can take an algae-sourced DHA, such as Nordic Naturals Algae Omega.