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How to derive the greatest benefits from eating fish

January 7th, 2015


How to derive the greatest benefits from eating fish

Taking the middle path means not inclining toward any extreme. Everything should be done in moderation. That’s the Buddhist way.

Health-conscious people often eat fish. Some eat fish every day at every meal. However, due to the radiation scare in Japan and reports of possible water contamination, people have started to doubt whether fish is safe, and some have even given up eating fish altogether. Both cases are examples of going to extremes.

Health organisations say that fish is good for the heart. A study done by Harvard University said that eating fish regularly can help reduce deaths from heart disease by 36% – a better result than that achieved by many patent medicines. However, this doesn’t mean that you should throw your heart medication in the rubbish bin and go for fish.

It is not immediately obvious why fish can help the heart. Fish has more good fat than red meat does and it has a lot of omega-3 fatty acid which can help reduce heart-rate irregularities, blood clotting and inflammation of the artery wall. It can also decrease one’s triglyceride level. It is recommended to include fish in at least two meals a week.


Omega-3 fatty acid in fish is not only good for the heart but also beneficial for the brain, especially in infants and young children. It has also been proven to help with memory and emotions in older people. Joint pain in rheumatoid patients can also be alleviated by this fatty acid because of its anti-inflammatory property.

News reports about fish contamination were doing the rounds even before the nuclear scare. Fish can contain mercury and other toxins, due to improperly treated wastewater from industrial complexes. When small fish eat bacteria in the water, toxins accumulate. When bigger fish eats the small fish, the toxins get transferred to the big fish. Eventually they end up in our bodies. The older the fish, the more toxins it tends to contain.

Mercury, even in small amounts, can damage the nervous system of a foetus or infant. If too much mercury is consumed, the brain and eyes can be damaged. Even adults can be seriously harmed by an excessive intake of mercury.

Levels of mercury can vary from species to species. In the US, small children, pregnant women and nursing mothers are advised to avoid tilefish and king mackerel because these can be high in mercury.

Due to the nature of their habitat, farmed fish tend to have higher levels of mercury than fish caught in the wild. Small fish from the ocean is used by commercial canneries, while many restaurants serve fish bought from farms.

Other toxin found in fish include PCB, DDT and dioxin. These poisons accumulate in the fish’s fat layers and liver. Freshwater fish have more of these toxins than saltwater fish.

Consuming fish oil, in liquid or tablet form, is is not as good as eating whole fish whose flesh contains other useful nutrients. So far there have been no reports of contamination in the oily fish sold in markets here. Still, too much fish oil may be just as unhealthy as too much fish.

My advice regarding fish is to eat moderate amounts. Choose short-lived fish such as sardines and herrings. If possible, eat fish that come from the wild in preference to farmed fish. Try not to eat fat layers and the skin as these are where toxins accumulate in fish.

A patient of mine was obese and her triglyceride level was high. I told her to change her diet to fish and white meat (such as chicken, without skin). Three months later, she came back even heavier, with a higher triglyceride level. She told me she had eaten breaded deep-fried fish and chicken at every meal, every day!

Prof Nithi Mahanonda is consultant cardiologist and interventionist, Perfect Heart Institute.



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