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Benefits of eating fish

Jane Murphy / 04 September 2018 ( 08 June 2022 )

Eating plenty of fish on a regular basis can help protect you from a range of serious diseases.

Healthy cod fillet with vegetables
White fish, like cod, are a good source of low-fat protein and minerals

Fish is a superfood. Packed with vitamins and minerals, and a major source of omega-3 fatty acids, studies have found that fish can help to protect against a range of diseases, from cancer to heart disease, depression to arthritis.

There are three types of fat: saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated and are considered part of the healthiest fat group. There are several types of omega-3s and it is the long-chain ones that are found in oily fish. It's important we eat foods containing omega-3s because our bodies are unable to make them. We look at some of the health benefits of eating fish.

1. It can ease depression

The essential omega-3 fatty acids – found in oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel and fresh tuna – are vital for healthy brain function.

In fact, studies have found that people who eat a fish-rich Mediterranean diet are significantly happier and less stressed than those who don't.

In one study, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh in the US asked 55 healthy adults to calculate how much omega-3 they ate every day. They then used MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to check the amount of grey matter in the volunteers' brains. Grey matter is the area in the brain where information is processed.

The team found that people who ate higher amounts of foods containing omega-3 fatty acids had more grey matter in the areas of the brain linked to mood and emotion.

The team concluded that omega-3 fatty acids might enhance the area of the brain associated with emotion. However further studies need to be carried out before it is proven that eating oily fish can cause structural changes in the brain.

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2. It may reduce risk of cancer

People who eat a diet including fish and vegetables – but no meat – are 43 per cent less likely to develop bowel cancer, according to a study at the Loma Linda University of California.

The most significant factor here could be the absence of meat: eating a lot of red and/or processed meat is a major risk factor for the disease. However, people who ate fish appeared to derive the greatest benefits, compared to vegetarians and vegans.

Meanwhile, a Swedish study of 6000 men over a 30-year period showed that those who didn't eat any fish had between double and treble the risk of developing prostate cancer, compared to those who ate moderate or large amounts. Shellfish, such as crab and lobster, also contains selenium, thought to have cancer-fighting properties.

3. It can fight rheumatoid arthritis

Eating at least one portion of oily fish each week can halve risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis. That's according to a 2013 study of 32,000 women, published in the journal Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases.

Population groups that eat a lot of fish - Inuits in Greenland, for example - have low rates of inflammatory conditions such as arthritis. It's thought the protective qualities all stem from – you guessed it – omega-3 fatty acids, which appear to have an anti-inflammatory effect.

4. It could prevent hearing loss

People who eat fish at least twice a week are 20 per cent less likely to develop hearing loss, says US research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The study followed 65,215 nurses over an 18-year period, during which time 11,606 cases of hearing loss were reported.

'Consumption of any type of fish – tuna, dark fish, light fish or shellfish – tended to be associated with lower risk,' says lead researcher Sharon Curhan. 'These findings suggest diet may be important in the prevention of acquired hearing loss.’

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5. It's good for your brain

Stick to a fish-rich Mediterranean-style diet and you're 19 per cent less likely to experience memory problems in later life, according to research from the University of Alabama.

Polyunsaturated fatty acids found in many fish may prevent damage to brain cells. Eating fish can also reduce the risk of high blood pressure, which is linked with dementia. A French study of 2000 people showed that those who ate seafood at least once a week had a significantly lower risk of dementia over a seven-year period than those who didn't.

6. It can ward off a stroke

Need another reason to eat two portions of oily fish each week? It can 'moderately but significantly' reduce risk of stroke, according to a 2012 study – published in the British Medical Journal – which looked at the diets of almost 800,000 people worldwide.

7. It might halt your headaches

Several studies have suggested that consuming more oily fish may reduce the frequency and severity of migraines. A University of Cincinnati study, for example, found that nine out of 15 migraine sufferers saw a significant decline in symptoms after taking fish oil supplements for six weeks.

8. It will boost your bones

Oily fish is one of the best dietary sources of vitamin D, which is essential for healthy teeth and bones. But do choose your fish wisely. Raw herring contains around 19mcg per 100g, compared to just 4.6mcg per 100g of canned sardines in brine.

Around half the adults in the UK have insufficient levels of vitamin D, according to a 2007 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

9. It could offer sun protection

A regular dose of fish oils may boost skin's immunity to sunlight, according to a 2013 study involving 79 volunteers at the University of Manchester.

The conclusion? 'This study adds to the evidence that omega-3 is a potential nutrient to protect against skin cancer,' says lead researcher Professor Lesley Rhodes.

10. It's good for your eyes

Eat at least one portion of oily fish each week and you could reduce your risk of age-related macular degeneration – a common cause of blindness – by 60 per cent. That's according to a study involving more than 2,500 people at John Hopkins University of Baltimore.

It's thought the effect could be due to the anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3 fatty acids.

11. It can help fight heart disease

No wonder the Government wants us all to eat more, with the Food Standards Agency recommending at least two portions a week of fresh, frozen, or tinned seafood (one of them of oily fish).

The British Heart Foundation says eating oily fish can help to reduce the risk of heart disease and improve your chances of survival following a heart attack. Fish does this by lowering levels of fats called triglycerides in the blood - raised levels are associated with heart disease. Fish oils also appear to help reduce blood clotting and abnormal heart rhythms after a heart attack.

Fancy eating more fish? Try one of our many fish and seafood recipes

Which fish should you eat to get the most health benefits?

White fish, like cod, are a good source of low-fat protein and minerals. Oily fish, such as sardines, pilchards, salmon and mackerel, have the highest concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids.

Crab, lobster and mussels come into the shellfish group and contain selenium - thought to have cancer-fighting properties.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.