Fish is good for your health – so why don’t we eat more of it? Senior Dietitian Victoria Taylor, British Heart Foundation busts some of the myths that put us off eating fish.
You might remember the days when people who’d had a heart attack were encouraged to eat extra oily fish to reduce their risk of another one. Now that medications to reduce the risk of further heart attacks have improved, there’s just one fish recommendation for everyone.
Fish is an important part of a healthy balanced diet. It’s recommended we all eat two portions of fish, one of which is oily, each week. One portion is 140g/5oz cooked fish, but you don’t have to eat it all in one go – having tuna sandwiches twice in a week can count as one portion.
The benefits of fish are only partly because of the omega-3 fatty acids they contain, which may help to keep your heart healthy. Fish is also a nutritious source of protein that provides a range of vitamins and minerals. And more fish and less meat is an important principle of the traditional Mediterranean diet, which is associated with a lower risk of heart and circulatory disease.
However, despite all the benefits of eating fish, we still seem to be swimming upstream when it comes to meeting the recommendations. On average, we only eat about one-third of a portion of oily fish a week. So if fish isn’t a regular part of your diet, you’re not alone. Here are our top tips to help you fall hook, line and sinker for the dish:
1. “I don’t like the smell of fish”
True, the smell of cooking fish (especially oily fish) can linger, but there are ways to minimise this. Rather than pan-frying or grilling, cook fish in the oven or poach it in a pan with the lid on to contain the smell. Alternatively, ready-cooked fish such as prawns or white fish (fresh or frozen), or tinned fish, don’t smell much and don’t even need cooking. Try a prawn salad or tinned crab with pasta.
2. “I don’t like the bones”
If you have a fishmonger on your high street or in-store at your local supermarket, they can fillet fish for you. You can also buy fish fillets fresh or frozen in supermarkets –most have a selection such as cod, haddock, salmon, sea bass and tuna.
Not keen on bones in tinned fish like sardines? These are soft and will add calcium to your diet if you eat them. If you don’t like the feeling of them crunching between your teeth, mash the fish up in the tin or a bowl first and you won’t notice them.
3. “I don’t like the taste”
If you’re not keen on the taste of fish, mixing it with other foods can help. Try tinned tuna in a pasta bake or in a risotto. You could try serving fish in a tomato sauce to dilute the flavour, or even make a fish curry. White fish generally has a milder flavour and firmer texture. Cod, hake or plaice are good fish to start with, but don’t forget other seafood. Mussels, squid and crab don’t have as much omega-3 as oily fish, but still contain some. Trying them can help you start exploring a range of fish.
4. “Fish is hard to cook”
Fish is actually very easy to cook. If you buy it filleted all you need to do is season it with black pepper and put it in a hot pan or oven. It depends on the thickness of the fillet, but if the oven’s hot then 15 minutes will often be enough for it to cook through. Or drop cubes of fish into a pot of hot sauce at the end of cooking, cover with a lid and it will be ready in less than 10 minutes. That’s quicker than a takeaway – it really is the ultimate fast food!
5. “Fish is expensive”
If you choose carefully, fish can be budget-friendly. Frozen fish is often cheaper than fresh fillets and can work really well in fish pie, fishcakes or a fish pâté. Frozen fillets of white fish, such as pollock and coley, tend to be the best value. Whatever you choose, make sure it doesn’t have salt or fat added – use your own flavourings like lemon, black pepper, chilli or parsley. Smoked fish such as smoked haddock, mackerel or kippers can also be an inexpensive and convenient option, but it is high in salt. If you include this in your diet, keep it to small amounts (mixed with other fish in a frozen ‘fish pie mix’, for example) and pair it with other ingredients without added salt.
Tinned fish, such as sardines, mackerel and tuna, is a really good-value option. You can keep it in the store cupboard and it’s incredibly versatile. Use it in sandwiches, on toast, in jacket potatoes or with pasta. But do read the ingredients label and choose one without added salt, or check the nutrition label and choose the lowest salt per 100g.
6. “I don’t need to eat fish to get omega-3”
Omega-3 supplements are available, but they don’t provide all the other nutrients you get from fish, and that’s where the full health benefit is probably found.
The omega-3 fats we get from vegetarian sources such as walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds, and linseed and rapeseed oil are essential fats, but aren’t the same as the type we get from fish. Our bodies have to convert them into longer-chain omega-3 fatty acids. This process is not very efficient and it’s not clear how much needs to be consumed to get an equivalent amount to eating fish.