Families across America are likely snacking on a surplus of turkey, ham and chicken leftover from last week’s holiday meals. But for some Italian-American families, seafood was the protein of choice. Seven different types of seafood, to be exact. In the traditional Southern Italian "Feast of the Seven Fishes," families partake in at least seven different kinds of seafood on Christmas Eve.

But while some filled up on fish last week, research suggests fish isn’t at the top of the grocery list for many Americans. Without this fare, people may be living with less healthy hearts.

Approximately 69 percent of U.S. individuals were found to be usual fish consumers – meaning they had eaten fish once in the month before being surveyed – according to a review article published in 2013. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) estimate that the average American eats 3.5 ounces of seafood per week, which is around half a fillet of cooked salmon.

People should be eating double this amount – two 4-ounce servings of seafood each week ­– according to the DGA. Despite these recommendations, Americans ate less seafood in 2012 than 2011, according to a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Studies suggest fish intake is associated with a reduced risk of death from cardiac events, such as a heart attack. For example, eating fish at least once a week may reduce death from coronary heart disease, according to one meta-analysis of 13 studies. Coronary heart disease refers to the buildup of plaque in the arteries that can lead to a heart attack.

Seafood is thought to help the heart because of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, or eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid, which are found at high levels in certain types of fish. Specifically, omega-3s appear to decrease risk factors that lead to heart disease. Researchers think their biggest benefit is decreasing arrhythmias, or irregular heartbeats that can lead to a heart attack. The nutrients are also thought to lower triglycerides, blood pressure, heart rate and inflammation.

Getting these heart-healthy fats through seafood has been a concern because some types of fish can contain high levels of toxic methyl mercury. However, the DGA suggests the health benefits from eating a wide range of seafood outweigh those associated with methyl mercury, although they do provide special recommendations for pregnant women and children. Several types of seafood have high levels of omega-3s and low levels of methyl mercury, including salmon, herring, sardines, anchovies, Pacific oysters, trout, Atlantic mackerel and Pacific mackerel, but not king mackerel.

EPA and DHA can also be found in fish oil supplements, but most studies of coronary heart disease death look at the benefits of eating fish as a whole, not EPA and DHA alone. Beyond omega-3s, seafood also contains vitamin D, protein and minerals that may promote heart health.

Factors such as affordability and availability of fish can make eating more seafood a challenge, but if you are thinking about adding some fish to your diet, this week might be the time to do it. Along with collard greens and black-eyed peas, some suggest fish is one of the ways you should ring in the new year.


Other References:

Flock, M.R. & Kris-Etherton, P.M. (2011). Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010: implications for cardiovascular disease. Current Atherosclerosis Reports. 13(6), 499-507. doi:10.1007/s11883-011-0205-0 Link

Mozafarrian, D. & Wu, J.H. (2011). Omega-3 fatty acids and cardiovascular disease: effects on risk factors, molecular pathways, and clinical events. Journal of the American College of Cardiology. 58(20), 2047-2067. doi: 10.1016/j.jacc.2011.06.063. Link