Oily fish: mighty omega-3 or codswallop?

 

oily-fish_377x171_126553800Interest in the health benefits of oily fish started when researchers observed that Eskimos, who eat mainly oily fish, had fewer heart attacks and strokes than average.

Oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines are said to help against cardiovascular disease, prostate cancer, age-related vision loss and dementia.

We’ve teamed up with the British Dietetic Association (BDA) to examine what the evidence says about the supposed health benefits of oily fish.

 

Oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines are a good source of vitamin D, protein, some B vitamins and selenium. It is also a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, a type of fat good for our health

The evidence

Cardiovascular disease
The UK Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition reviewed the evidence on the health benefits of fish (PDF, 857.38kb)in 2004. It said a “large body of evidence” suggests that fish consumption, particularly of oily fish, reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. Studies have found that eating oily fish can lower blood pressure and reduce fat build-up in the arteries. The evidence is strong enough to warrant a government recommendation that we eat at least two portions of fish per week, of which one should be oily.

Prostate cancer
The evidence for oily fish’s effect on prostate cancer is so far inconclusive. Some limited research suggests that eating fish may reduce the risk of developing prostate cancer. However, this is not backed up by other studies so we can’t be sure of this effect.

Dementia
A 2012 review (PDF, 406.73kb) looked into whether consuming more omega-3, a type of healthy fat found in oily fish, could reduce our risk of dementia. The review looked at studies of healthy 60-year-olds who took omega-3 capsule supplements for six months. The review concluded there was no benefit in preventing decline in brain function and dementia when healthy older people take omega-3. The review suggested that longer term studies would offer researchers a better opportunity for identifying the possible benefits of omega-3 in preventing dementia.

Loss of vision
A well-conducted review in 2008 found there was some evidence that eating oily fish two or more times a week could reduce the risk of age-related macular degeneration, a common cause of blindness in older people. However, the reviewers said the results should be interpreted cautiously due to weaknesses in the research.

The dietitian’s verdict

Alison Hornby, a dietitian and BDA spokesperson, says if there’s one food that’s good for your heart, it’s oily fish.

She says: “The benefits of eating at least two portions of fish a week, including one of oily fish, include keeping your blood pressure at a healthy level and improving blood lipids, both of which reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, the biggest killer in the UK.

“Remember that you can get your omega-3 from a range of oily fish. Tinned sardines and mackerel, for example, are an easy and cheap way to stock up the store cupboard. Eaten on toast with a side salad, this makes a quick, easy and nutritious meal.”

 

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