Fish : nutrition, shocking medical use & 5 adverse effects

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See also Shellfish, Squid.

Fish Nutritional Profile

• Energy value (calories per serving): Moderate
• Protein: High
• Fat: Low to moderate
• Saturated fat: Low to moderate
• Cholesterol: Moderate
• Carbohydrates: Low
• Fiber: None
• Sodium: Low (fresh fish) High (some canned or salted fish)
• Major vitamin contribution: Vitamin A, vitamin D
• Major mineral contribution: Iodine, selenium, phosphorus, potassium, iron, calcium

How Many Nutrients in Fish Food

• Like meat, poultry, milk, and eggs, fish are an excellent source of high-quality proteins with a sufficient amount of all the essential amino acids.

• While some fish have as much or more fat per serving than some meats, the fat content of fish is always lower in saturated fat and higher in unsaturated fats.

• For example, 100 g/3.5 ounces cooked pink salmon (a fatty fish) has 4.4 g total fat, but only 0.7 g saturated fat, 1.2 g monounsaturated fat, and 1.7 g polyunsaturated fat; 100 g/3.5 ounce lean top sirloin has four grams fat but twice as much saturated fat (1.5 g), plus 1.6 g monounsaturated fat and only 0.2 g polyunsaturated fat.

Omega-3 Fatty Acid Content of Various Fish (Continued)

Fish Grams/ounce
• Rainbow trout 0.30
• Lake whitefish 0.25

• Fish oils are one of the few natural food sources of vitamin D. Salmon also has vitamin pigments in the plants eaten by the fish. The soft bones in some canned salmon and sardines are an excellent source of calcium.

CAUTION: do not eat the bones in raw or cooked fish. the only bones considered edible are those in the canned products.

 How To Serve Nutritious Fish Food

• Cooked, to kill parasites and potentially pathological microorganisms living in raw fish.
Broiled, to liquefy fat and eliminate the fat-soluble environmental contaminants found in some freshwater fish. With the soft, mashed, calcium-rich bones (in canned salmon and canned sardines).

Diets That May Restrict or Exclude Fish Food

• Low-purine (antigout) diet
• Low-sodium diet (canned, salted, or smoked fish)

How To Buying Fish Food

Look for:

Fresh-smelling whole fish with shiny skin; reddish pink, moist gills; and clear, bulging eyes. The flesh should spring back when you press it lightly. Choose fish fillets that look moist, not dry. Choose tightly sealed, solidly frozen packages of frozen fish.

• In 1998, the FDA/National Center for Toxicological Research released for testing an inexpensive indicator called “Fresh Tag.” The indicator, to be packed with seafood, changes color if the product spoils.


Fresh whole fish whose eyes have sunk into the head (a clear sign of aging); fillets that look dry; and packages of frozen fish that are stained (whatever leaked on the package may have seeped through onto the fish) or are coated with ice crystals (the package may have defrosted and been refrozen).

How To Storing This Food

• Remove fish from plastic wrap as soon as you get it home. Plastic keeps out air, encouraging the growth of bacteria that make the fish smell bad. If the fish smells bad when you open the package, throw it out.

• Refrigerate all fresh and smoked fish immediately. Fish spoils quickly because it has a high proportion of polyunsaturated fatty acids (which pick up oxygen much more easily than saturated or monounsaturated fatty acids).

• Refrigeration also slows the action of microorganisms on the surface of the fish that convert proteins and other substances to mucopolysac-charides, leaving a slimy film on the fish. Keep fish frozen until you are ready to use it.

• Store canned fish in a cool cabinet or in a refrigerator (but not the freezer). The cooler the temperature, the longer the shelf life.

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How To Preparing Fish Food

Fresh fish.

Rub the fish with lemon juice, then rinse it under cold running water. The lemon juice (an acid) will convert the nitrogen compounds that make fish smell “fishy” to compounds that break apart easily and can be rinsed off the fish with cool running water.

• Rinsing your hands in lemon juice and water will get rid of the fishy smell after you have been preparing fresh fish.

Frozen fish.

Defrost plain frozen fish in the refrigerator or under cold running water. Prepared frozen fish dishes should not be thawed before you cook them since defrosting will
make the sauce or coating soggy.

Salted dried fish.

Salted dried fish should be soaked to remove the salt. How long you have to soak the fish depends on how much salt was added in processing. A reasonable average for salt cod, mackerel, haddock (finnan haddie), or herring is three to six hours, with two or three changes of water.

• When you are done, clean all utensils thoroughly with hot soap and hot water. Wash your cutting board, wood or plastic, with hot water, soap, and a bleach-and-water solution.

• For ultimate safety in preventing the transfer of microorganisms from the raw fish to other foods, keep one cutting board exclusively for raw fish, meats, and poultry, and a second one for everything else. Finally, don’t forget to wash your hands.


What Happens When You Cook Fish Food

• Heat changes the structure of proteins. It denatures the protein molecules so that they break apart into smaller fragments or change shape or clump together. These changes force moisture out of the tissues so that the fish turns opaque.

• The longer you cook fish, the more moisture it will lose. Cooked fish flakes because the connective tissue in fish “melts” at a relatively low temperature.

• Heating fish thoroughly destroys parasites and microorganisms that live in raw fish, making the fish safer to eat.

How Other Kinds of Processing Affect Fish Food


Like heat, acids coagulate the proteins in fish, squeezing out moisture. Fish marinated in citrus juices and other acids such as vinegar or wine has a firm texture and looks cooked, but the acid bath may not inactivate parasites in the fish.


Fish is naturally low in sodium, but canned fish often contains enough added salt to make it a high-sodium food. A 3.5-ounce serving of baked, fresh red salmon, for example, has 55 mg sodium, while an equal serving of regular canned salmon has 443 mg. If the fish is canned in oil it is also much higher in calories than fresh fish.


When fish is frozen, ice crystals form in the flesh and tear its cells so that moisture leaks out when the fish is defrosted. Commercial flash-freezing offers some protection by freezing the fish so fast that the ice crystals stay small and do less damage, but all defrosted fish tastes drier and less palatable than fresh fish. Freezing slows but does not stop the oxidation of fats that causes fish to deteriorate.


Fish can be cured (preserved) by smoking, drying, salting, or pickling, all of which coagulate the muscle tissue and prevent microorganisms from growing. Each method has its own particular drawbacks. Smoking adds potentially carcinogenic chemicals. Drying reduces the water content, concentrates the solids and nutrients, increases the calories per ounce, and raises the amount of sodium.

Medical Uses and/or Benefits Of Fish

Protection against cardiovascular disease.

The most important fats in fish are the poly unsaturated acids known as omega-3s. These fatty acids appear to work their way into heart cells where they seem to help stabilize the heart muscle and prevent potentially fatal arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat).

• Among 85,000 women in the long-running Nurses’ Health Study, those who ate fatty fish at least five times a week were nearly 50 percent less likely to die from heart disease than those who ate fish less frequently. Similar results appeared in men in the equally long-running Physicians’ Health Study.

• Some studies suggest that people may get similar benefits from omega-3 capsules. Researchers at the Consorzio Mario Negri Sud in Santa Maria Imbaro (Italy) say that men given a one-gram fish oil capsule once a day have a risk of sudden death 42 percent lower than men given placebos (“look-alike” pills with no fish oil). However, most nutrition scientists recommend food over supplements. 

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Adverse Effects Associated with Fish Food

Allergic reaction.

According to the Merck Manual, fish is one of the 12 foods most likely to trigger classic food allergy symptoms: hives, swelling of the lips and eyes, and upset stomach.

• The others are berries (blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries), chocolate, corn, eggs, legumes (green peas, lima beans, peanuts, soybeans), milk, nuts, peaches, pork, shellfish, and wheat (see wheat cereals).

NOTE: Canned tuna products may contain sulfites in vegetable proteins used to enhance the tuna’s flavor. People sensitive to sulfites may suffer serious allergic reactions, including potentially fatal anaphylactic shock, if they eat tuna containing sulfites. In 1997, tuna manufacturers agreed to put warning labels on products with sulfites.

Environmental contaminants.

Some fish are contaminated with methylmercury, a compound produced by bacteria that chemically alters naturally occurring mercury (a metal found in rock and soil) or mercury released into water through industrial pollution.

• The methylmercury is absorbed by small fish, which are eaten by larger fish, which are then eaten by human beings. The larger the fish and the longer it lives the more methylmercury it absorbs. The
measurement used to describe the amount of methylmercury in fish is ppm (parts per million).

• Newly-popular tilapia, a small fish, has an average 0.01 ppm, while shark, a big fish, may have up to 4.54 ppm, 450 times as much. That is a relatively small amount of methylmercury; it will soon make its way harmlessly out of the body. But even small amounts may be hazardous during pregnancy because methylmercury targets the developing fetal nervous system.

• Repeated studies have shown that women who eat lots of high-mercury fish while pregnant are more likely to deliver babies with developmental problems.

• As a result, the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency have now warned that women who may become pregnant, who are pregnant, or who are nursing should avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish, the fish most likely to contain large amounts of methylmercury. The same prohibition applies to very young children; although there are no studies of newborns and babies, the young brain continues to develop after birth and the logic is that the prohibition during
pregnancy should extend into early life.

• The following table lists the estimated levels of mercury in common food fish. For the complete list of mercury levels in fish,

Mercury Levels in Common Food Fish

Low levels (0.01–0.12 ppm* average)
Anchovies, butterfish, catfish, clams, cod, crab (blue, king, snow), crawfish, croaker (Atlantic), flounder, haddock, hake, herring, lobster (spiny/Atlantic) mackerel, mullet, ocean perch, oysters, pollock, salmon (canned/fresh frozen), sardines, scallops, shad (American), shrimp, sole, squid, tilapia, trout (freshwater), tuna (canned, light), whitefish, whiting

Mid levels (0.14–0.54 ppm* average)
Bass (saltwater), bluefish, carp, croaker (Pacific), freshwater perch, grouper, halibut, lobster (Northern American), mackerel (Spanish), marlin, monkfish, orange roughy,
skate, snapper, tilefish (Atlantic), tuna (canned albacore, fresh/frozen), weakfish/ sea trout

High levels (0.73–1.45 ppm* average)
King mackerel, shark, swordfish, tilefish

  • ppm = parts per million, i.e. parts of mercury to 1,000,000 parts fish

Parasitical, viral, and bacterial infections.

Like raw meat, raw fish may carry various pathogens, including fish tapeworm and flukes in freshwater fish and Salmonella or other microorganisms left on the fish by infected foodhandlers. Cooking the fish destroys these organisms.

Scombroid poisoning.

Bacterial decomposition that occurs after fish is caught produces a histaminelike toxin in the flesh of mackerel, tuna, bonito, and albacore. This toxin may trigger a number of symptoms, including a flushed face immediately after you eat it. The other signs of scombroid poisoning nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, and hives show up a few minutes later. The symptoms usually last 24 hours or less.

Fish Food/Drug Interactions

Monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitors.

Monoamine oxidase inhibitors are drugs used to treat depression. They inactivate naturally occurring enzymes in your body that metabolize tyramine, a substance found in many fermented or aged foods.

• Tyramine constricts blood vessels and increases blood pressure. If you eat a food such as pickled herring, which is high in tyramine, while you are taking an MAO inhibitor, your body may not be able to eliminate the tyramine and the result may be a hypertensive crisis.


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