HOLY MACKEREL

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Although Omega 3 was first identified in 1929, it is only in recent years that nutritionists are realising just how vital it is to good health. Indeed, Omega 3 is now seen as close to a miracle preventive for many of today's life-threatening illnesses.

Ironically, the benefits of Omega 3 are only becoming apparent as the levels in our diet are dropping. We Brits eat proportionately less of the Omega 3 fatty acid family which comes from fish or fish oil, and more of the Omega 6 fatty acids found in soft margarines and vegetable oils.

Those of us swimming against the tide by increasing the amount of oily fish in our diet can experience remarkable health benefits. Most obvious are the changes to the blood. This is important in a country where coronary heart disease is the major cause of death for men and women. Omega 3 helps make the blood less sticky and less likely to form clots where those clots are not wanted. The level of fat in the blood falls, helping it to flow more easily around the body.

For anyone worried about heart disease, the benefits of Omega 3 are striking. Studies have found that it can lower blood pressure, particularly among people with chronic high blood pressure. And high levels of Omega 3 help to slow down the heart rate and make the heart less prone to the irregular rhythms identified as a high risk factor in heart attacks.

In an age when most of us have been brought up to believe that fat is bad for you, researchers are showing that the reverse can be true. Scientists' studies of native Greenlanders -- with their diet of fatty fish, seal and whale meat and blubber -- indicated that very few subjects contracted coronary heart disease.

Other communities that ate a lot of fish -- in Japan, for instance -- had low rates of heart disease too. Overall, peoples with high fish diets showed the lowest rates of death from heart disease.

So the signs are that a healthy diet should include regular servings of oily fish. The government-appointed Committee on Medical Aspects of Food Policy reported, among its recommendations for a healthier lifestyle, that we should all be eating two portions of fish each week, and one of these portions should be oil-rich fish.

Indeed, we now know that at certain stages in our lives, eating oily fish or taking Omega 3 supplements is particularly important. The old wife's tale about fish being good for the brain turns out to carry some truth. Omega 3 is vital to the unborn child throughout pregnancy -- but especially so in the final three months and during infancy -- for healthy development of the eyes, the brain, and the nervous system.

Because the unborn child cannot produce its own Omega 3, the need for it has to be met through the mother's diet. Studies have shown that breast-fed babies have better brain and eye development than do bottle-fed babies, perhaps because bottle-feed milks do not contain the Omega 3 that is a natural part of breast milk. High levels of Omega 3-containing fish oils can protect older people against strokes. This component of the diet may also help to protect against the development of some cancers and in soothing inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, asthma, lupus, psoriasis and Crohn's disease. Conversely, low levels of Omega 3 have been linked to depression and even dyslexia.

Because the human body cannot itself produce the essential fatty acids of Omega 3, we need to derive these special nutrients from our food. Virtually all fish contain some Omega 3, but some species contain more than others.

As a general rule, the lighter the colour of the flesh, the less oil it contains, which means a lower concentration of Omega 3. White fish, for instance cod or haddock, contains about 0.2g of Omega 3 per 100g portion of fish, while herring, mackerel or salmon provide about 2-3g per 100g portion. In general, the concentration of Omega 3 is not affected if the fish is frozen, chilled, canned or smoked.

So how much Omega 3 do we need? Scientists believe that, in the case of a person in good health, eating the equivalent of around 1g of Omega 3 per day will significantly reduce the risk of an early death. However, because the body can carry over Omega 3, it probably makes more sense to reckon on a weekly intake of 5-10g. Fish oil in capsules or in liquid form is just as effective as eating fresh fish, with a teaspoonful of cod liver oil providing about 1g of Omega 3.

Fish delivers good quality protein as well as a rich supply of B vitamins and -- in the case of oily fish -- vitamins A and D. Because we now understand how vital Omega 3 is to a healthy diet, fish makes a great and simple meal -- marinated and grilled, eaten cold and smoked, roasted or barbecued -- and a healthy one.

Fishy dishes

It isn't hard to increase the amount of oily fish in your diet and it won't increase your food budget. Oily fish, particularly when bought in cans, is relatively cheap and quick to cook.

KIPPER RISOTTO

Serves 4

* 450g (1lb) of kipper (or smoked mackerel) fillets, skinned and chopped
* 1 onion, sliced
* 50g (2oz) margarine
* 225g (8oz) long grain rice
* 500ml (1/2pt) fish or chicken stock
* 175g (6oz) mushrooms, quartered
* 1 green pepper, seeded and chopped
* 3 tomatoes, skinned and chopped
* 1. Sauté the onion in margarine until nearly soft, then add rice and stock and bring to the boil. Simmer for 7-8 minutes.
* 2. Add the mushrooms and peppers and continue cooking the mixture until all of the stock is absorbed.
* 3. Add fish and tomatoes and continue to cook, stirring until the mixture is heated throughout.
* 4. Season to taste. Turn onto a serving dish. Nutrition Information Per portion

Calories 743 Protein

* 27g Fat
* 48g Carbohydrate 54g Fibre
* 3g key vitamins and minerals -- vitamins A, B group, C & E, potassium, iron, zinc, selenium, iodine

HERRING AND BACON PARCELS

Serves 2

2 x 175g (6oz) herring fillets

Mustard powder (for dusting)

* 50g (2oz) reduced calorie Brussels paté (other types may be substituted)
* 3 rashers back bacon, cut into long strips
* 1. Cut each fillet in half, lengthways. Place on a board, skin side down, and dust the flesh with mustard powder.
* 2. Spread with paté and roll up. Wrap bacon strips around the rolled-up fillet, making a cross on top.
* 3. Place in an ovenproof dish and bake in an oven pre-heated to 190øC (375øF, Gas 5) for 20-25 minutes, until crisp and golden.

Herrings prepared this way can also be barbecued. Nutrition Information Per portion

Calories 469 Protein

* 43g Fat
* 33g Carbohydrate 1g Fibre
* 0g key vitamins and minerals -- vitamins A, B group & E, potassium, iron, selenium, iodine

Market Link Publishing.

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By Carol Davis

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