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Facts About Fish: Don't Miss Its Benefits

Nancy Clark, MS, RD


Nutrition facts have a shelf life of about 3 years, once commented the venerable George Sheehan, MD, the late runner and philosopher. This seems the case when it comes to advice about eating fish. The latest nutrition literature offers confusing reports, and perhaps has left you wondering which fish tale you should believe:

  • Eating fish at least one or two times a week—particularly oily fish from cold ocean waters, such as salmon and sardines—will reduce your risk of heart disease (1,2), or
  • Eating fish may offer little health protection against heart disease (3,4).
Let's take a look at the research findings—and put them in perspective.

What Are the Net Benefits?

For years, fish has been considered a positive addition to a heart-healthy diet, particularly fish that is rich in omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil). That advice stood until researchers at Harvard University reported in a study (3) of more than 44,500 male health professionals that those who ate fish were not protected from heart disease. Even men who increased their intake from one or two servings per week to six or seven servings per week didn't substantially lower their risk of heart disease.

Another study (4) of 22 older men and women who had average cholesterol levels suggests that increasing fish consumption from two to eight servings per week, as part of a low-fat, low cholesterol diet, does little to reduce the risk of heart disease. Because the kinds of fish used in the study (sole, salmon, and tuna) were not all rich in omega-3 fatty acids, the amount of fish oil might have been too small to produce any effect. Nevertheless, the messages from these two studies suggest that fish-rich diets may not be the answer for preventing heart disease.

Trolling for Protein

Although the jury is still out on fish and heart disease, there's no doubt that fish is an excellent source of protein. As an active person, you need protein for building muscles, repairing tissues, growing hair and nails, making hormones, and assisting in numerous other functions that contribute to a strong and healthy body. Protein is found in many foods—such as meats and dairy products—besides fish. The daily amount of protein you need ranges from 0.5 to 0.9 grams per pound of body weight per day; the higher end of the range is appropriate for athletes who are growing, building muscles, doing endurance exercise, or restricting calories. A 6-ounce serving of fish provides about 40 grams of protein—a good part of the daily 75 to 135 grams of protein needed by a 150-pound athlete.

The protein in fish is among the most healthful animal sources of protein. That's because fish is low in saturated fat, the type associated with clogged arteries and heart disease. Saturated fat (as in beef lard and cheese) is solid at room temperature. Fish would be unable to function if their fat were saturated like that of many warm-blooded animals. Instead, fish store energy in the form of polyunsaturated oils that are soft and flexible in the cool temperatures of oceans and mountain streams.

For this reason—regardless of the conflicting evidence about its health-protective qualities—fish remains an important part of a heart-healthy diet. Eating fish in place of spareribs, greasy hamburgers, or cheesy pasta can help you lower your overall intake of saturated fats and cholesterol. No one will challenge this advice!

Some experts worry about the safety of fish taken from polluted waters. Because the contaminant can be stored in the flesh of the fish, your best bet is to limit your intake of these fish, particularly if you are pregnant.

Fitting Fish In

Though fish can be a nourishing addition to your diet, you may shy away from eating fish simply because you don't know how to buy and cook it, or because you don't cook at all. Noncooks can easily incorporate fish into a sports diet by keeping canned fish stocked in the cupboard for a quick lunch or supper. Water-packed albacore tuna, salmon, or sardines eaten with crackers or in a sandwich are an easy addition to your daily menu.

For information on how to buy and prepare fresh fish, see "Tips for Buying and Cooking Fish (not shown)."

Stay Hooked

Because fish meals are unlikely to harm you—and they may even help you—I continue to recommend that you include fish in your diet one to four times a week. Fish adds variety and possibly protective fish oils, and it's a fine alternative to other protein-rich foods that are high in saturated fats. Getting hooked on fish may help you stay healthy as you age. Keep fishing!


  1. Kromhout DE, Bosschieter EB, de Lezenne, et al: The inverse relation between fish consumption and 20-year mortality from coronary heart disease. N Engl J Med 1985;312(19):1205- 1209
  2. Bonaa KH, Bjerve KS, Nordoy A: Habitual fish consumption, plasma phospholipid fatty acids, and serum lipids: the Tromso study. Am J Clin Nutr 1992; 55(6):1126-1134
  3. Ascherio A, Rimm EB, Stampfer MJ, et al: Dietary intake of marine n-3 fatty acids, fish intake, and the risk of coronary heart disease among men. N Engl J Med 1995;332(15):977-982
  4. Schaefer EJ, Lichenstein AH, Lamon-Fava S, et al: Effects of National Cholesterol Education Program Step 2 diets relatively high or relatively low in fish-derived fatty acids or plasma lipoproteins in middle-aged and elderly subjects. Am J Clin Nutr 1996;63(2):234-241

Remember: You, your physician, and your nutritionist need to work together to discuss nutrition concerns. The above information is not intended as a substitute for appropriate medical treatment.

Ms Clark is director of Nutrition Services at SportsMedicine Brookline in the Boston area. She is a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine, a fellow of the American Dietetic Association, and a member of its practice group, Sports and Cardiovascular Nutritionists (SCAN).