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Eat Seafood for Your Health

July 2011

Karen Ensle EdD, RD, FADA, CFCS
Family & Community Health Sciences Educator
Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Union County

Seafood is an important part of a healthful diet. Seafood contains high-quality protein and other essential nutrients, is often low in saturated fat, and contains omega-3 fatty acids. In fact, a well-balanced diet that includes a variety of fish and shellfish can contribute to heart health and children's growth and development. In January 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services updated the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommending that the general public eat at least two servings of seafood each week.

Seafood contains all nine essential amino acids; therefore, it is an excellent source of protein which is highly digestible. The protein in seafood is more readily broken down and absorbed than the protein in red meats and poultry. Fish contains 17 to 25% protein, with an average protein content of 19%.

The total amount of fat in most varieties of seafood is very low, and the fat is rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids. Typically, the method of preparation adds fat, such as deep-fat frying or added sauces. Healthy cooking techniques such as broiling, barbecuing, poaching, microwaving, or steaming will help reduce the amount of total fat in a fish recipe. Increasing the intake of fish prepared healthfully means fewer calories and less saturated fat.

Seafood is an excellent source of minerals including calcium. The soft bones of small fish such as sardines and smelts and canned varieties such as salmon are especially valuable sources of calcium. Other minerals in seafood include zinc (oysters and crustaceans), iron (oysters, bluefish, and shrimp), copper (oysters, crabs, and lobster), and potassium (mussels, scallops, and clams), along with iodine, phosphorus, and selenium (all seafood in general). Fresh seafood is low in sodium. For those with high blood pressure who have to restrict their intake of sodium, fresh seafood is an excellent choice. Fish with higher sodium include processed seafoods such as smoked, cured, and most canned products.

Most nutrition researchers say that eating seafood twice a week may assist in preventing heart disease. The high content of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) in seafood lowers serum cholesterol levels. Omega-3 fatty acids change the critical balance of certain blood components called lipoproteins, thus reducing the low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and very low density lipoproteins (VLDL) that deposit cholesterol along the artery walls. Omega-3 fatty acids lower the levels of triglycerides, another type of fat involved in heart disease, and slow down the clotting of blood cells, reducing the number and stickiness of blood platelets which make red blood cells more flexible so that they flow more smoothly.

Other health problems that may be controlled or alleviated by the consumption of omega-3 fatty acids from fish are asthma, arthritis, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, hypertension, migraine headaches, cancer, and some kidney diseases. In general, taking small steps to include more seafood in your diet is a healthy choice. Look for advertised sales to save money. The benefits of seafood consumption are many and adding more fish to your meals is a delicious way to achieve a heart-healthy eating plan.