Dear Overactive eater,
Generally, a case of the munchies is your body's way of signaling that it's time to refuel. If snacks and even full meals don't fill you up, there may be another cause for your ongoing hunger. If diet changes don't do the trick, a visit to a health care provider may ease your mind and your appetite.
Based on your description, it sounds like you can rule out the possibility of a digestive parasite. Rather than fueling your hunger, most stomach bugs cause digestive troubles like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea that can kill your appetite. There is one infamous bug, the Taeniasis parasite (aka tapeworm), that is often blamed for insatiable appetites or unintended weight loss. However, Taeniasis is acquired by eating infected pork or beef so it's not likely that you have a tapeworm since you've been vegetarian for years.
As you suggested, people who follow a vegetarian diet sometimes don't get enough protein. These power nutrients give your body energy and also help you feel full, more so than carbs or fruits and vegetables. Vegetarians also need to consider the kind of proteins they eat. Unlike meats, individual plant foods don't supply all the amino acids that your body needs. To make sure you're getting a complete protein package, try combing two complementary foods that offer different amino acids from these four protein groups: grains, legumes or beans, seeds and nuts, and eggs and dairy. For example, a PBJ sandwich combines grains (go for whole wheat bread!) and legumes (peanuts) for a complete protein. Similarly, a yogurt parfait with fruit and almonds complements dairy with nuts. Newer research has indicated that protein pairings need not be consumed at the same time. That is, it should be sufficient to combine the complementary foods within the same day. For more tasty protein pairings, check out the related Q&As below about protein sources.
Another source of satisfaction comes from eating enough fat. Depending on your level of physical activity and other factors your fat needs will vary. However recent research shows that eating moderate amounts of healthy fats can really help satisfy. In addition to nuts, think avocado and healthy oils (canola, olive, safflower, trans-fat free spreads). Check out ChoseMyPlate.gov to calculate your calorie, protein, fat, and carb needs and determine whether what you're eating should be filling you up.
To make sure you're eating enough of the right proteins and fats as part of a balanced diet, it may also be helpful for you to keep a food journal. You can use the journal to plan out meals, make grocery lists that include healthy and filling snacks, and record when and what you eat throughout the day (and night). The food journal may help you answer some key questions to explain the uptick in your appetite. For example, are you eating enough calories throughout the day to make you feel full? Do your tummy rumblings coincide with any particular emotions like stress, sadness, or happiness? If you do end up seeing a health care provider, the journal will help them understand your diet and what might be causing your excess hunger.
If diet changes don't seem to satisfy your hunger, there may be an underlying health condition that's giving you the munchies. According to the National Institute of Health, causes of increased appetite may include:
- Certain medications (such as corticosteroids and some antidepressants)
- Grave's disease
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
List adapted from the article Appetite - increased at MedlinePlus
Since there are a variety of explanations for your hunger pangs, if adding a healthy balance of proteins and fats to your plate won't satiate your appetite, your best bet is to see a health care provider. Getting medical attention is a good idea especially if you have any other unexplained symptoms like frequent urination, increased heart rate, or feeling very thirsty. Students at Columbia on the Morningside campus can call 212-854-7426 or log on to Open Communicator to make an appointment with a health care provider or nutritionist at Medical Services. If you are a student on the CUMC campus, give the Student Health Center a call at 212-305-3400 to make an appointment with a health care provider or nutritionist.
Fueling up with more complete proteins and healthy fats may help you feel full and keep your body running strong. If your hunger still hangs around, visit a health care provider to find out what your body needs to fill up and feel good. Take care,
Dear Reader and Confused About Calories,
Good questions! While a liquid diet probably wouldn't affect the way your digestive system works, you would still need to ensure that you are receiving plenty of calories and nutrients. Discussing this issue with a health care provider, such as a gastroenterologist or nutritionist, may be good steps if a liquid diet is something you want or think you need to pursue. Also, Reader #1, check out the Related Q&As below for more information about food allergies.
As for the calorie query submitted by Confused About Calories, the fact of the matter is, regardless of the consumption method, a calorie is a calorie. The energy it takes to burn one liquid calorie equals exactly the same as that needed to burn one solid calorie. What throws some people off is the concept of caloric density. Foods that have high water content tend to have lower caloric density (think fruits and veggies), meaning a greater calorie to volume ratio. For example, to consume the same amount of calories you would get from one cup of raisins, you would need to eat nearly ten cups of grapes. What adds to this is that low caloric density foods tend to make you feel fuller faster because of their water content.
This does not mean that simply consuming more liquid will make you want to eat less. Liquid calories may in fact be deceiving because beverages like sodas often contain a lot of calories but do little to satiate hunger. When studies compared food intake between one group given water to drink and the other given soda, there was little difference in the amount of solid calories they ate. However, even though both groups ate roughly the same amount of food, the group who drank the soda consumed more calories overall because of the beverage that accompanied their meal.
Depending on the motivation for your question, you may want to consider meeting with a nutritionist or other health care provider to discuss this matter further. If you are a student at Columbia you can make an appointment with Medical Services by calling x4-2284 or by logging in to Open Communicator. Keep in mind that a primary health care provider can also make any referrals to a specialist, if appropriate. For more nutrition information, visit the Dining Services' nutrition resources. In addition, you may find it helpful to read some of the responses in the Go Ask Alice! fitness and nutrition archives or the related Q&As below.
Remember though, your body needs more than just calories; it also needs nutrients, which may be lacking in a liquid diet. Although liquid calories may seem less significant than calories consumed from solid foods, keep in mind that a raisin in the hand is worth ten grapes in the bush.
Even the savviest of shoppers can be fooled by some of the products on the market today. Food labels can be confusing. Did you know that when a claim appears on a food item stating, for example, that whole grains reduce the risk of heart disease and certain cancers, only 51 percent of its grain contents needs to be whole grain? A little background information will be helpful to you as you navigate your way through the grocery store looking for easy and convenient whole grain foods.
So, what exactly is a whole grain? A grain contains three parts, the bran, endosperm, and germ. The bran is the outer layer, which is high in fiber and B vitamins. The endosperm is primarily starch, or carbohydrates, which turn into sugar in our bodies when we it. The germ is the seed for a new plant and it contains B vitamins, protein, minerals, and healthy oils. When grain is processed, the bran and germ are removed, leaving only the endosperm or starch. This is essentially why whole grains are more nutritious.
And how do we figure out if a food is made from whole grains? It's easy to be tricked into thinking a food is a whole grain when it's not. For example, if an ingredient is listed as unbleached wheat flour, it is still refined flour and not a whole grain. One way to determine if a product is whole grain is if it has a Whole Grain Stamp from the Whole Grains Council. This identifies it at as containing whole grains. However, if there is no stamp, the key way to determine if a product is whole grain can be found in the nutrition label list of ingredients. If the phrase "whole" appears as part of the FIRST ingredient in the ingredient section of the food label, such as "whole wheat flour" or "whole oats," it is likely that it is a whole grain product. Words that are often indicators of a whole grain product also include "stoneground whole," "brown rice," and "wheatberries." Be wary of items listed without the word "whole" before, such as durum wheat or multigrain, because they may not be actual whole grains. You can also visit the Whole Grains Council, which is a good resource for additional information regarding whole grains and packaging, particularly words you may see on packages and how to identify which are whole grain and which are not.
As far as whole grains coming in a convenient package that can be grabbed off the shelf, let's start in the bread and cereal aisle since these items are the main types of food that offer immediate edibility of whole grains. Next we take a walk to the pasta aisle followed by the aisle containing rice and other whole grains, such as barley and quinoa, which typically involve some cooking time. However, many grocery stores now offer areas where you can find all of these whole grains prepared for you, so the final stop is the hot and cold prepared foods area.
For more tips about healthy eating and whole grain choices, check out the Get Balanced! section of the Alice! Health Promotion nutrition initiatives. There are recipes, a guide to healthier eating, and a grocery store shopping list organized by food category.
Hope this clears up some of the confusion,
Dear Fat Frat Guy,
You write that you're sitting around the frat house bored. It sounds as though you may have more time to fit in activity than you realize. Exercise doesn't always need to be a long, intensive workout. Short, frequent bouts can be just as effective as longer ones. Why not go out for a walk? Does your frat house have weights in the basement or other area? Taking advantage of exercise equipment is a great idea, but if there isn't any available, jumping rope between sets of push-ups and sit-ups, in your room or a living room or den, can help alleviate boredom.
If these ideas aren't possible, or you still need some suggestions to resist snacking, a few questions to ask yourself may help. First of all, are you actually hungry? When was the last time you ate? Could you put off eating for 15 minutes? If you can wait 15 minutes and then see how you feel, you may decide that you really weren't hungry after all, or you may even forget all about that snack. If you don't and still want to eat — try to quantify your hunger.
Consider the Hunger and Fullness scale. On a scale from 0 - 10, with 0 being BEYOND HUNGRY as though you haven't eaten in an entire day (not recommended) and 10 representing BEYOND FULL as if you ate three Thanksgiving dinners — again not recommended, see where your hunger or fullness falls:
|1||Extremely hungry, irritable, and cranky|
|3||You have a strong urge to eat, but aren't ready to fall over.|
|4||Just a little hungry|
|5||Totally neutral... neither hungry nor full|
|6||You are a notch past neutral — you could eat more but aren't hungry|
|7||You are feeling satisfied. If you stopped eating at this point, you would need to eat again in about 4 - 4½ hrs.|
|8||You are getting pretty full. If you stopped eating at this level, you would probably get hungry again in 5 - 6 hours.|
|9||You are getting really full, and uncomfortable.|
One way to use this scale is to try to rate your feelings of hunger and fullness. You have to work on paying attention to your body's signals. Make an agreement with yourself that you will eat when your hunger is at 3, and stop eating when you reach 7. If you can ask yourself how you are feeling before taking a snack, you may be able to alleviate or at least cut down on boredom eating. Remember, food's for nutrition and nourishment. If another part of yourself needs nourishment, it's important to figure out what that is and create other ways of meeting that need. Excessive snacking often catches up with us in the form of excess pounds, as you have found. If you repeatedly find yourself eating when you aren't hungry, or when you are no longer hungry, you probably don't need those excess calories.
So, once you realize that you aren't hungry, there are probably a ton of things you can do to pass the time. Getting off your duff and moving your body — somewhere further away from the kitchen — would be a good start!
Dear Not Fully Aware,
Your question is one many people deal with. Some people were taught from an early age to finish everything on their plate, no matter how they felt. This was often rationalized by well-intentioned parents referencing the millions of starving children around the world. Unfortunately, this type of encouragement does little to teach children about listening to their bodies or learning to identify or conceptualize the feelings that come when one is satisfied with the amount or type of food they are eating. This conditioning experienced by many growing up, can carry on into adulthood.
Others are out of touch with their body signals for other reasons. How often have you felt ravenously hungry and then couldn't believe how much you'd eaten? How much food does it seem to take to satisfy your hunger? Letting yourself get really, really hungry distorts awareness of body signals. If you're out of touch or ignore subtle hunger cues, it's extremely difficult to detect subtle fullness. As a result, you're only able to feel extremes. It's difficult to describe what comfortable fullness feels like inside your body, but some people express it as being satisfied and content after eating. Others say it's a subtle feeling of fullness, of not being hungry anymore (even if there's still food on their plate).
You can begin by thinking about how you are feeling while you are eating — a kind of checking in with yourself. This takes a conscious effort. Once you've eaten some of your food, consider asking yourself some of these questions: does the food (still) taste good? Is my hunger beginning to subside? After a few more bites, am I beginning to feel satisfied? Try stopping about halfway through to determine if you've had enough. Try rating your fullness from 1 - 10:
- Ready to collapse from hunger
- I could eat something, but not very hungry
- Not hungry at all
- Comfortably satisfied
- Full to very full
- Disgustingly sick
If you go from a 2 to a 9 easily, perhaps you are going for too long without food, or your last meal was too small (a problem for dieters). Maybe your last meal was lacking important satiety nutrients, such as protein, fat or fiber, which usually help to keep you satisfied over a few hours. Sometimes when we eat very quickly, a large quantity of food is consumed and before we realize it, we're stuffed. If this is your problem, try slowing down, taking your time chewing, swallowing, and resting between bites.
The most important part about eating to a pleasant fullness is to eat consciously — to increase your awareness. This takes practice for many people. Too often, we distract ourselves with other activities — such as studying, watching TV, or surfing the Internet, without realizing that we're full, until the entire bowl of popcorn, liter of soda, or pizza is gone. Give yourself time to enjoy and appreciate your food, and you can notice and identify its effects on your body.
For more information and insight, check out Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch's book, Intuitive Eating. If you are a Columbia student, you may want to make an appointment to speak with a nutritionist. Morningside campus students can contact Medical Services; CUMC students can reach out to the Student Health Service.
Best of luck!
Dear Mom trying to offer healthy choices, but having some technical difficulties,
To think, while some children beg for the latest neon-colored sugar cereal to hit the shelves, your two children are tallying fiber grams. They have fostered their interest in nutrition. Educating about and encouraging healthy behaviors are keys to lowering risks of chronic diseases, such as heart disease and cancer, later in life.
As you are aware, the "Nutrition Facts" label is a helpful tool for understanding what each food contributes to daily nutrient intake. These labels provide the amount of carbohydrates, fat, protein, as well as percent daily values for a number of nutrients. Percent Daily Values (DV) are based on a 2000-calorie eating plan, which can be confusing, because that's more calories than most of us need. For an in-depth explanation about this or other food label content issues, check the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), or the Kidshealth.org Figuring Out Food Labels page for kid friendly explanations.
Unfortunately, curious consumers will not find "Nutrition Fact" labels on all foods, even if foods have packaging. Some specific exceptions to food labeling requirements include:
- Ready-to-eat food that is not for immediate consumption but is prepared primarily on site — for example, bakery, deli, and candy store items
- Food shipped in bulk, as long as it is not for sale in that form to consumers
- Medical foods, such as those used to address the nutritional needs of people with certain diseases
- Plain coffee and tea, some spices, and other foods that contain insignificant amounts of nutrients
Though you might not see nutrient labels on fresh foods, the information needs to be nearby. The FDA created a voluntary program to promote retailer labeling of the top 20 most commonly sold fruits, vegetables, and fish, as well as the 45 best-selling cuts of raw meat and poultry. The nutrient information needs to be available as a brochure, leaflet, notebook, or stickers in the appropriate grocery department. Labels for fruits, veggies, and raw fish include the following:
- Name of the fruit, vegetable, or fish
- Serving size
- Calories per serving
- Amount of protein, carbohydrates, fat, and sodium per serving
- Percent of the Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA) for iron, calcium, and vitamins A and C per serving
For nutrient information for 5,900 foods from alfalfa sprouts to zucchini at the click of a button, look to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Nutrient Database. A simple keyword search and portion size specification will yield the complete nutrient profile of your food.
One of the most comprehensive print versions of nutrient composition tables is Bowes & Church's Food Values of Portions Commonly Used, by Jean A. T. Pennington, Ph.D. Some 8,500 foods are listed according to food group with analysis results for 30 nutrients, but they are not in "Nutrition Facts" label format.
Hopefully these resources will help make your technical difficulties with nutrition labels a thing of the past!
Regardless of your activity level, breakfast is an essential part of a healthful lifestyle and is also important for maintaining energy all day long. The motto here is anything for breakfast is better than nothing at all. Think of your body as a car and food as gas. Without gas, your car cannot get from one place to another.
The rate at which your body uses calories for energy is known as metabolism. Think of metabolism as the motor of your car. Metabolism is directly related to energy levels, so the higher your metabolism, the more energy you have throughout the day. When you are sleeping, your body naturally decreases its metabolism. When you wake up, there is an increase in metabolism, which peaks by noon. How much energy you have during this time is contingent on how much food calories your body has to use for energy. Breakfast becomes the first stop to the gas station before your road trip. So basically, eating breakfast actually helps maintain high energy levels throughout the day. In fact, the more hearty a breakfast you have, the more your metabolism motor will roar!
You do have to stick to some guidelines, of course, to promote optimal energy.
The best range of calories for breakfast is between 350 to 500. Below 350, your body will not fulfill the requirements for morning energy usage; above 500, your body may store unneeded calories as fat.
Plan and eat a balanced breakfast meal including complex carbohydrate, protein, fat, and a fruit or vegetable.
Quantity to Aim for
- 1 to 2 servings of complex carbohydrates. One serving equals 1 piece of bread, ½ cup of cooked oatmeal, 1 cup of dry cereal, 1 English muffin, ½ bagel, ¼ cup of granola, 1 small muffin.
- 1 serving of protein. For example, 1 cup of yogurt, ½ cup of cottage cheese, 1 ounce of cheese, 1 large egg, 2 ounces of smoked salmon, 1 cup of milk or soy milk, 2 tablespoons (T) of peanut butter, or ¼ cup of nuts or seeds.
- 1 serving of fat. E.g., 1 teaspoon (t) of butter, 1 t of oil, 1 tablespoon (T) of cream cheese. But check your protein and carbohydrates for fat, there's no need to add extra if you have a serving of fat in your granola or omelet.
- 1 serving of a fruit or vegetable. That is, 1 medium piece of fruit, 1 cup of cut fruit, ¼ cup dried fruit, 6 ounces of fruit juice, 1 cup of raw or ½ cup of cooked vegetables, 1 cup of vegetable juice.
Some examples of energizing breakfast meals include:
2 pieces of toast
2 T of peanut butter
1 medium banana
2 servings of complex carbohydrates
1 serving of protein
1 serving of fat
1 serving of fruit
1 serving of complex carbohydrates
1 cup of cooked oatmeal with
1 cup of 2 percent fat milk
¼ cup of raisins
2 servings of complex carbohydrates
1 serving of protein
1 serving of fat
1 serving of fruit
1 small muffin
1 cup of plain low fat yogurt
1 cup of orange juice
1 serving of complex carbohydrates
As you see, there are many delicious ways to get from point A to point B every morning. Imagine your surprise when you see the results with more energy!
Humans are the only animals to cook their food before eating it. Some say that the superior nutrition afforded by cooking our food is what has allowed our brains and bodies to develop the amazing complexities that they have. Others think that the humans who cooked their first meal 40,000 years ago took a step towards a long fall from grace that eventually led to fast food, heart disease, and related health concerns.
Many people who follow a raw diet — a diet composed primarily of uncooked fruits, vegetables, sprouts, nuts, seeds, grains, and beans — do report experiencing increased energy, improved skin appearance, better digestion, weight loss, and reduced incidence of heart disease. However there are probably just as many people who would claim that a raw diet made them feel lethargic, hungry, cold, and/or deficient in crucial vitamins and minerals. There are pros and cons of a raw diet, as with almost any diet you could come up with. The most important thing is to figure out what feels right for your body, lifestyle, climate, and nutritional needs, all of which may change throughout your life.
The main tenet of a raw food diet is to avoid cooking foods above 118 degrees Fahrenheit, the theory being that keeping enzymes intact allows the body to better absorb nutrients. Foods that are usually cooked, like grains and legumes, are broken down in other ways like soaking and sprouting. Soaking and sprouting seeds, grains, nuts, and legumes can render them full of enzymes, fully digestible, and high in proteins, vitamins, fats, and minerals. Fruits and vegetables can also be dehydrated into breads and cookies, blended into warm (under 118 F degrees) soups, and juiced. Because the raw food diet consists mainly of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, grains, legumes, seaweed, fresh juices, and purified water, it contains fewer transfats and saturated fats than the typical Western diet. A raw foods diet is also high in fiber, potassium, magnesium, folate, and health-promoting plant chemicals called phytochemicals.
Another advantage raw foods promoters cite is the diet's alkalizing effect on the blood. The more alkaline human blood, the more oxygen it absorbs. The more oxygen our blood absorbs, the better we feel. If our blood can't absorb enough oxygen we feel tired, gain weight, have poor digestion, develop aches, pains, and may develop conditions like cancer, heart disease, arthritis, and candida. The most alkalizing foods are raw dark green vegetables — especially leafy green vegetables like kale, collards, and chard; fruits like watermelon, avocado, cucumber, and young coconuts; herbs and spices like wheatgrass, parsley, basil, cilantro, cayenne, ginger; and sprouts made from mung bean and alfalfa. The opposite of alkalizing foods are acidic foods, which are mostly sugar, coffee and tea, animal products, white flour and other processed foods like cereal and baked goods, and transfats and saturated fats. Some believe that stress and environmental toxins also produce acidity in the blood. An easy way to determine your blood pH level is to buy a pH test strip at any health food store, pee on it, and read the results to tell how alkaline or acidic you are. While followers may be fervent about the benefits of going raw, there are few to no scientific, population-based studies backing up claims of significant health benefits.
Some critics of a raw food diet suggest that the body makes the enzymes needed to digest and assimilate food nutrients, and that, though you do lose some vitamins and minerals when cooking, there's nothing inherently wrong with cooking foods. In fact, cooking some foods allows our bodies to more easily digest their proteins, and makes certain nutrients more available to our systems for absorption. For example, lycopene, a plant chemical, is found in greater abundance in cooked tomato products than in raw ones. Cooking also helps to destroy certain bacteria and food-borne illnesses.
Other critiques associated with this diet are that it lacks calcium, iron, protein and vitamin B12. To avoid nutrient deficiency, strict raw foodists take supplements of vitamin B12, vitamin D, and drink herb teas like raspberry leaf and nettles to fortify the body with iron and calcium. By eating adequate amounts of sprouted beans, nuts, and seeds, raw food lovers can consume enough protein. Nausea, cravings, and headaches, which are symptoms of the body's detoxification, can occur as a result of starting a raw diet. Detox symptoms are especially likely to occur if a person's previous diet was rich in meat, sugar, and caffeine. With time (and drinking plenty of water) these symptoms usually go away. A strictly raw food diet might not be suitable for pregnant or nursing women, babies and young children, people with anemia, people at risk for osteoporosis, and those who live in very cold climates, although these people can certainly incorporate raw foods into their diets. As with any eating plan, considerable energy, time, thought, and commitment is necessary in order to maintain a healthy and balanced lifestyle as a raw-foodie.
With diets, one size does not fit all. There is no one diet that will serve everyone the same; there probably isn't even one diet that will serve one person for very long. If you're a Columbia student and want more individualized guidance on optimal nutrition, you can make an appointment with a nutritionist at Medical Services through Open Communicator or by calling x4-2284. Non-Columbia students may want to start with a primary care provider who can help them find a nutritionist. You can examine what a raw diet entails, how to carry it out healthfully, and common pitfalls to avoid, but ultimately you will have to decide for yourself if it feels good to keep it raw one day a week, one week a month, one month a year, or hardly ever. Rawk on!
In a word, no! Fat — both on our bodies and in our diet — gets an undeserved bad rap and is actually essential for our survival. Body fat is found in places you may not even think about when you're considering its role in our health. It's part of:
- every cell membrane
- some hormones and prostaglandins (hormone-like substances) which regulate many body functions
- nerve sheaths (nerve coverings)
Body fat is categorized as either essential or storage fat; both types play a vital role in our functioning. Essential fat is found in bone marrow and lipid rich tissues throughout the body. Storage fat is located around internal organs and under the skin (subcutaneous). These two types of body fat play important roles in keeping our bodies healthy. For example:
- A layer of fat surrounds each organ (such as your heart, liver, kidneys, etc.), protecting and cushioning it against impact during sports or accidents,
- Fat helps maintain normal body temperature.
- Fat provides us with a supply of stored energy, which can sustain us if food is not available.
Dietary fat is the fat found in a variety of foods and is a concentrated source of energy for the body. It is dangerous to eliminate all fat from your diet. Certain fats, essential fatty acids, can only be obtained from foods. These are incorporated into regulators of specific body processes such as blood pressure and even help us maintain healthy skin. Dietary fats are also required to absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K. These nutrients are vital to our vision, bone formation and maintenance, blood protection and clotting, nerve development, and can act as a defense against oxidation. In addition to their health benefits, fats provide joy in eating. They carry flavors and aromas, and provide foods with pleasurable textures. Fats also fill us and help satisfy our appetite.
When it comes to fat, too much or too little on our bodies and in our diets is not recommended. The related Q&As below can shed some more light on the facts about fat.
Somthing's fishy about your lab results. The improvement in your cholesterol levels may be due to the foods you replaced with the fish, rather than the fish in and of itself. The fats found in some varieties of fish, omega-3 fatty acids, reduce triglyceride levels in the blood, but generally do not affect cholesterol levels.
However, you're still doing yourself a favor by feasting on fish. Eating fish offers many major health advantages. The primary benefit found from including fish oils in your diet is the lowered risk for sudden cardiac death. This means that fish eaters decrease their chance of dying suddenly from a heart attack (keep in mind that there are different types of heart attacks).
Two mechanisms explain how eating fish reduces the chance of heart attack. First, it seems that fish oil fatty acids reduce blood clotting by decreasing the stickiness of blood platelets. Second, omega-3 oils may play a role in stabilizing heart rhythms. It could be that the electrical impulses that go awry during some heart attacks are preserved in fish eaters. These protective qualities may work together, resulting in the reduced risk of sudden cardiac death that has been observed among fish consumers. Other possible health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids are their potential to help lower blood pressure and protect against some forms of stroke.
Remember, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. There are certain risks associated with eating too much fish. The main risk has to do with the toxicity of environmental contaminants, primarily mercury, which ends up in fish due to environmental pollution. Because of this, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding are often advised to avoid fish. In addition, there are various recommendations for eating fish to avoid consuming dangerous levels of mercury, as its toxicity can damage the brain, kidneys, and lungs. Mercury levels may be especially high in shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish.
But in moderate amount, fish can be beneficial, especially for people eating a western diet that is often low in omega 3s. Good sources of omega 3 include:
- Mackerel (watch out for the higher mercury levels in king mackerel)
- Rainbow and lake trout
- Albacore, blue fin, and yellow fin tuna (including the canned type)
- Striped sea bass
- Swordfish (watch out for higher mercury levels)
Fish oil supplements, on the other hand, contain almost no toxic contaminants and thus are safe. However, they can cause gastric symptoms, so it is best to take them with food. People with low blood pressure or who are taking medication for low blood pressure should also be careful about eating too much fish, since the fish oil could lower blood pressure even more. In very high amounts, fish oils can have some anti-coagulant effects, causing nosebleeds in some people.
Eating these jewels of the sea even once or twice a week may lead to heart healthy benefits. Obviously an all-around healthy diet will provide even more protection from heart disease, and other maladies, too.