I was invited to attend a food and nutrition conference this month in Lisbon, Portugal (part of my travel was sponsored), and was excited to learn more about current research on the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids and including seafood in the diet. Lisbon is a beautiful city by the water, so the local diet is rich in fish. During my visit, I consumed fresh fish or seafood daily, and also had the opportunity to bring some absolutely delicious canned tuna and sardines home.

What you may not know is that the benefits of eating fish go beyond heart health, and can also impact brain development, cognitive health, and perhaps even treatment of depressive and anxiety disorders.

Regular fish consumption is recommended in the DASH Diet guidelines, and the diet has the potential to support cardiovascular, but eating fish every week helps your body from the neck up too. It’s also important that pregnant women get enough DHA in the diet (DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid crucial to brain development). Some studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acid may also help in the treatment of depression, and eye health.

Omega-3s and Cognitive Health

One of the scientific sessions: “Fish on the Brain: The Latest Seafood Recommendations and Research in Omega-3s for Cognitive Health” (sponsored by DSM Nutritional Products, the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED), and the Seafood Nutrition Partnership) was presented by Tom Brenna, a lipid expert, who discussed ways to build a better brain. He made the comparison that DHA is to the brain as calcium is to the bones. The research is intriguing, showing how pregnant women who were supplemented with DHA had offspring with improved verbal development IQs compared to women who did not take the supplement. DHA is essential for brain development in infants, and for the normal brain function of adults.

John Paul SanGiovanni, associate professor in the department of biochemistry and molecular and cellular biology at Georgetown University School of Medicine, presented his research about the potential impact DHA and EPA may have on depression and anxiety disorders.

Fish and Mercury

There’s no question that the benefits of eating fish twice a week outweigh any risks. Mercury in fish is really only a concern for women of child-bearing age. Studies following women who included fish in the diet have associated a diet adequate in fish with better verbal development in the children. I’ll be writing more about mercury concerns in a future post, but the FDA’s 2014 report on the net effect on fetal neurodevelopment from eating commercial fish, shows that a reasonable amount of fish can be consumed without ill effect. In fact, even small amounts of a high mercury fish like tile fish can be consumed by pregnant women, but I’d recommend avoiding high mercury fish (tlle fish, shark, swordfish and king mackerel) during pregnancy, and instead enjoy any other fish high in omega-3s (like tuna, sardines and salmon).

If you aren’t a regular fish eater, consider adding it to your weekly diet. If you don’t like fish, give it another try. Today’s choices may surprise you.

Canned tuna with olive oil makes a great appetizer or snack. Open can, add fresh clove of garlic, rosemary or other herbs. Heat in 400 degree oven for 5-10 minutes and serve with crackers.