The Omega Fish

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In the midst of unfounded health scares claiming that fish consumption is hazardous to your health, a recent study actually encourages increased fish intake. On July 19, 2004, Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian of the Harvard School of Public Health and his colleagues published a study in the journal Circulation that attributes reduced risks of atrial fibrillation* to increased consumption of broiled or baked fish. This study adds to the larger body of research pointing to the health benefits of eating fish.

We have been besieged with reports alarming the public about the supposed health hazards of eating fish. Fish and shellfish have been found to contain trace amounts of mercury, PCBs, and PBDEs. In 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration advised pregnant women to be selective about the fish they consume. Surprisingly, there is no scientific evidence that directly correlates the trace levels of these chemicals and the occurrence of human cancer.

The twelve-year Circulation study surveyed the diets of 4,815 people with an average age of seventy-two, of whom 980 developed atrial fibrillation. Participants who ate more baked or broiled fish had less risk of developing atrial fibrillation.

The study attributed the health benefits particularly to the type of fish eaten rather than other factors, such as the method of cooking.

The positive effects attributed to fatty fish are thought to be due to their content of omega-3 fatty acids. Oily fish, such as salmon, tuna, herring, and mackerel, along with some other foods such as walnuts and other tree nuts, are rich in omega-3s. These fatty acids protect the heart by decreasing the risk of irregular heartbeats. They are stored in the membrane of cardiac cells and are released when there is a decrease in blood flow. They also lower the risk of death by protecting against an increase in heart rate.

The question whether to eat fish now has a clearer answer. When weighing well-documented health benefits against unfounded risks, especially if you are concerned about your heart, don't avoid consumption of fatty fish.

Sagine Gousse is a research intern at the American Council on Science and Health. Also see articles by Whelan and Kava on fish scares and the place of fish in new Dietary Guidelines, respectively.

*Atrial fibrillation is a chronic disorder that afflicts about 2.2 million Americans. In this disorder, the atria of the heart do not beat effectively, failing to completely pump blood out of the heart. The blood then pools and may clot, increasing risk of stroke. About 15% of people who have strokes have atrial fibrillation as a preexisting disorder.