Can eating fish save lives?

Published on
November 12, 2012

One in five British men and one in seven British women suffer from coronary heart disease which costs the U.K. National Health Service GBP 77 billion (USD 123 billion) per year to treat. However, people in southern Europe are two to three times less likely to contract the disease than those living in northern Europe. And it’s largely due to the difference in diet.

This was the message coming out of the Mediterranean diet revisited conference held at Fishmongers’ Hall in London at the beginning of November. Although deaths from coronary heart disease are declining, according to Dr. Katharine Greathead of the independent charity Heart Research U.K, there are still 2.7 million people with heart disease living in the U.K.

Atherosclerosis, or thickening of the artery walls, starts at a young age she said, and there are no outward signs that this is happening. What people eat is very important to prevent the build up of fatty deposits on blood vessel walls and changes to the diet can be affected early in life.

It wasn’t just the type of fat consumed that caused problems, she added, but the balance between the long chain omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and the low levels of omega-6 fatty acids found in other foods such as nuts and grains, together with olive oil which is mono-unsaturated. All these foods are part of the Mediterranean diet.

The benefits to human health derived from the consumption of omega-3 fatty acids are starting to become well known.

Professor Tom Sanders of King’s College in London said that the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids are found in predator fish because they are accumulated along the food chain, and a 140-gram serving of mackerel will provide 4.5 grams of these polyunsaturated acids. However, he pointed out that it was not just how much of what type of fish was consumed, but how it was served was also important.

For example fish fried in batter was less healthy than fish that was simply grilled, and salted fish raised a person’s blood pressure.

Sanders said that where fish were caught was significant. There was human pollution in both the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas because of the ‘low turnover of water.’

Eating oil-rich fish twice a week caused the death rate in men to start to drop off, he said, although added that ‘you don’t gain a huge amount more, by eating more fish’ and one serving of fish lowers the risk of contracting coronary heart disease by 16 percent.

According to Sanders, reviving the former tradition of regularly eating fish on a Friday was a very simple and easy to follow method of preventing heart disease.

However, there is more to the Mediterranean diet than the omega-3 fatty acids provided from fish. And in the original diet, which was common in Crete, these were also obtained from molluscs such as mussels, squid and cuttlefish.

The mono-unsaturated fatty acids from olive (and rapeseed) oil were also important elements in the diet, according to Professor Julie Lovegrove from the Institute for Cardiovascular and Metabolic Research.

Consumption of cheese and milk as in Mediterranean countries reduces blood pressure she added, while consumption of butter, which is low in this region, increases it.

Following the Mediterranean diet, which is very complex, she said, reduces the consumption of trans fats that increase the risk of coronary heart disease by raising levels of ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol and lowering levels of ‘good’ HDL cholesterol.  

Dr. Greathead told the conference that the Mediterranean diet is a potential gold standard for reducing the incidence of heart disease. And while there is a lot more to the diet than its seafood content, it is evident that fish and shellfish are vital ingredients and play a crucial role in preventing deaths from heart disease.

However, whether more people in northern Europe follow their southern counterparts is open to question, but at least there will be more awareness of the benefits of the Mediterranean diet after this conference.

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