Fish makes a fabulous addition to any healthy diet. Its fat content is generally low (many types provide 20 percent or less of calories from fat), making it a great protein option. And the fat it does contain appears to hold promise of preventing and healing disease.
Eating fish instead of meat or poultry usually means less total fat, but it almost always means less saturated fat (as long as you're not ordering a deep-fried fillet and smothering it with tartar sauce).
And that's important when it comes to the health of your heart and blood vessels. Ironically, though, fatty fish are better for you than lean fish, because they contain more omega-3 fatty acids.
Two omega-3 fats, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), do a ton of good for your heart. EPA reduces the stickiness of blood platelets, preventing blood clots that can lead to heart attack and stroke. They also reduce triglyceride levels (see Heart Disease and Stroke for a discussion of the importance of triglycerides). DHA helps prevent irregular heartbeats by stabilizing electrical activity in the heart.
One study has linked omega-3s with less risk of sudden cardiac death. Another found that older people who eat just one serving of fatty fish a week are 44 percent less likely to die from a heart attack. And more recent research has confirmed the benefits of eating fish for both men and women.
The Physician's Health Study of 22,000 men, for example, found that those with the highest blood levels of omega-3s had the least risk of sudden death. And the Nurses' Health Study of 85,000 women found two to four servings a week reduced heart-disease risk by one-third. Even those who ate fish as little as one to three times a month showed benefits. As a result of much of this research, the American Heart Association now recommends two weekly servings of fish. (Supplements of fish oils, on the other hand, are not generally recommended by medical experts because higher doses -- which are possible with supplements but improbable through consumption of fish -- may cause bleeding problems.)
Omega-3s have also shown promise in easing symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis because of their anti-inflammatory properties. Again, adding fish to the menu just two to three times a week has been suggested as a sound starting point.
You don't have to buy fresh to get the health benefits that omega-3 fatty acids offer. Canned fish, including tuna, sardines, and salmon, offer the same omega-3s as fresh varieties.
Selection and Storage
Fish doesn't stay fresh long. If handled properly, fatty fish, such as bluefish, tuna, salmon, mackerel, or herring, lasts only about a week after leaving the water; lean fish, such as cod, haddock, or perch, lasts about ten days. To be sure the fish you buy is fresh, check for a "fishy" smell. If you detect one, don't buy it. Whether you buy whole fish, fish fillets, or steaks, the fish should be firm, not soft, to the touch. The scales should be shiny and clean, not slimy. Check the eyes; they should be clear, not cloudy, and should be bulging, not sunken. Fish fillets and steaks should be moist; steer clear if they look dried or curled around the edges.
It's best to cook fresh fish the same day you buy it. (Fish generally spoils faster than beef or chicken, and whole fish generally keeps better than steaks or fillets.) But it will keep in the refrigerator overnight if you place it in a plastic bag over a bowl of ice. If you need to keep it longer, freeze it. The quality of the fish is better retained if the fish is frozen quickly, so it's best to freeze fish whole only if it weighs two pounds or less. Larger fish should be cut into pieces, steaks, or fillets. Lean fish will keep in the freezer for up to six months; fatty fish, only about three months.
Preparation and Storage Fish
Preparing fish without adding lots of fat is simple. The key to keeping fish moist and flavorful lies in taking advantage of fish's natural fat and juices. The number one rule: Preserve moistness. In practical terms, that means avoiding direct heat, especially when preparing lean fish. You'll get the best results with lean fish, such as flounder, monkfish, pike, and red snapper, if you use moist-heat methods, including poaching, steaming, or baking with vegetables or a sauce that holds moisture in.
Dry-heat methods, such as baking, broiling, and grilling, work well for fattier fish.
Fish cooks fast. That means that it can overcook quickly. You can tell fish is done when it looks opaque and the flesh just begins to flake with the touch of a fork. The general rule of thumb for cooking fish is to cook ten minutes per inch of thickness, measured at the fish's thickest point.
Marinades do wonders for fish. But as with poultry, keep safety in mind. Never marinate at room temperature; only in the refrigerator. And never use the marinade as a sauce for prepared fish unless you boil the marinade first.
Meat, poultry, and fish can all be excellent sources of protein. With the right selection, preparation, and storage, these three items can form the backbone of any healthy diet and give your body more disease-fighting potential.
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