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Eating Smart

Well-Prepared Fish Is a Healthy Menu Item

July 26, 1999|SHELDON MARGEN and DALE A. OGAR | Dr. Sheldon Margen is professor of public health at UC Berkeley; Dale A. Ogar is managing editor of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter. They are the authors of several books, including "The Wellness Encyclopedia of Food and Nutrition."

As anyone who fishes can tell you, sometimes, just when you think you've reeled in a big one, a wave comes along and your catch gets away. If you will allow us to torture that analogy a little bit, we would say that health research is a lot like fishing and the question of whether fish should be a regular part of a healthy diet is a perfect example.

Studies conducted in places like Japan and Greenland, where fish is a major part of the diet, show that the rate of heart disease is quite a bit lower than in countries where less fish is consumed.

However, a few years ago, a study of 45,000 American men aged 40 to 75 seemed to indicate that while eating one to three servings of fish a week might protect against cardiovascular disease, eating more than that didn't seem to help much. Still other research from Finland, where fish consumption is high, shows that the rate of heart disease is also high.

When all is said and done, however, the general consensus continues to be that adding fish to the diet is a good idea.

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What's so special about fish? Well, the fat contained in fish is rich in a form of polyunsaturated fatty acids called omega-3s. The fattier the fish, the more omega-3s it contains. Omega-3s seem to work a bit like aspirin and make the blood less sticky and thus less likely to form clots that could lead to heart attacks.

Most of the controlled clinical research on fish oil has used fish oil capsules, which are assumed to have the same health benefits as fish. But in fact, there may be other substances in fish, which are not found in the capsules, but are important to consider when evaluating the large population studies around the world.

Of course most everybody is looking for the easy way out, and if the theories about fish oil are true, then it would be very handy if fish oil capsules did the trick, especially for people who don't like fish. Unfortunately, capsules containing large doses of fish oil are not without their side effects and should not be taken without consulting your physician. Apparently, people have figured that out for themselves, because the sale of these supplements has dropped considerably while consumption of fish in this country has gone up.

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One reason people often hesitate to include fish in their diet is that they are not clear on how to select and prepare it. The following tips might help.

* Make sure the fish you buy is displayed on thick layers of ice. If the fish is stacked up, the ones on the top may not be cold enough to keep from spoiling. The fish should have a pleasant, ocean smell, not a bad, fishy or ammonia-type smell.

The flesh should be shiny, moist and firm, not soft or spongy. Avoid bruised or brown fish. Stay away from prewrapped fish; it might be wrapped to keep you from smelling or feeling it.

* Make sure that when you buy fish, you are headed right home to put it in the refrigerator. If that isn't possible, put an ice chest in the car and take it home that way.

* When buying frozen fish, make sure the packages are tightly sealed and have no ice crystals or any sign that the fish has thawed and been refrozen. Frozen fish should be hard as a rock. When you thaw it out at home, do so in the refrigerator and cook it the same day.

* Treat raw fish like raw chicken, and be sure to wash your hands and all utensils in hot, soapy water before touching anything else to avoid contamination.

* Cook fish until it is flaky and opaque over high heat, but don't overcook it. Just be sure it is cooked completely.

* If you are microwaving your fish, make sure it is boneless. Cooking it on high for three minutes per pound and then letting it sit for three minutes to finish the cooking will usually do the trick, but be sure to check it in more than one spot.

* Leftover fish can be kept in the refrigerator for two or three days but be sure to put it away as soon as possible after cooking.

* Do not eat raw fish. Even the freshest fish may harbor various kinds of bacteria and other potentially harmful organisms. Marinating raw fish in lemon or lime juice does not kill all the bacteria and parasites. A well-trained sushi chef may know how to purchase and handle fish to minimize the risks, but doing this at home is just asking for trouble.

For more information, check the Food and Drug Administration's Web site at http://www.cfsan.fda.gov.

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