Reviewed by Wendy Marcason, RD, LDN
Guys, when is the last time you had fish for dinner? If you can't remember, it may be more than the passage of time that's to blame. Recent studies show that improved memory is just one of many brain boosting benefits men can reel in by eating more fish.
You Are What You Eat
You've likely heard that omega-3 fatty acids are good for your health. But one in particular, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), goes straight to your head. "DHA is actually present at the nerve endings in our brain," explains Keri Gans, RD, who is author of The Small Change Diet. "It is important for our cognitive behavior, for memory and brain performance," If you think higher levels of DHA in your diet might simply help you remember to put fish on your shopping list, keep in mind that studies link DHA deficiencies to more serious mental problems than occasional forgetfulness. In fact, low levels of DHA have been associated with a greater risk of Alzheimer's disease in later years. A study published in the journal Alzheimer's and Dementia found that those supplementing with DHA showed a benefit roughly equivalent to having the learning and memory skills of someone three years younger.
Signs of memory loss shouldn't be your first signal to boost intake. Think of fish consumption as a savings plan for your brain, not a winning lottery ticket. "It’s definitely a cumulative effect," Gans stresses. "It's not something where if you eat a piece of fish then you’re going to get an A on a test. It doesn't happen that quickly."
Do you have to be swimming in fish dinners to feed your brain? Gans states that two, six-ounce servings of fish per week will yield a positive effect for the average man. More is fine, according to Gans—but keep some tips in mind. Oily fish such as wild salmon, albacore tuna, mackerel, herring, and farmed trout are the best catches with more DHA to offer. When you get cooking, think broiling or grilling—the extra fat from deep frying is counterproductive when there’s lean protein on the menu. Gans also recommends selecting fish that are eco-friendly and low in mercury, and says that sardines and wild Alaskan salmon are top choices. Meanwhile, lake trout (as opposed to safer farmed trout) is a "caution fish" when it comes to mercury content.
Brains and Brawn
Let's be honest: feeling good should be motivation enough to change our diets, but some days looking good seems just as important. Add one more plus to the fish list: very lean protein. "For men who are into toning up their bodies, getting more muscular, getting six pack abs… fish should be a part of a well-balanced diet," advises Gans. To make sure the body stays in top aerobic condition to power through muscle-building sessions, the effect of fish on the heart is just one more benefit. Aside from being lower in saturated fat than red meat, swapping burgers for tuna means more omega-3s, which studies have shown can lower blood pressure and reduce heart attack risk.
Seafood or Seaweed?
For vegetarian or vegan men, all is not lost—getting DHA is possible, just perhaps more difficult. Seaweed is a source of DHA, and is used to make vegetarian DHA supplements (algal, or seaweed, supplements were used in the Alzheimer's and Dementia study). Gans lists ground flax seed, canola oil, broccoli, cauliflower, and red kidney beans as other vegetarian sources of omega-3s. However, Gans warns that our bodies convert only about 5% of plant-based omega-3s to DHA. If a man's primary intake of DHA comes from vegetables or non-oily fish, then speaking to a doctor or registered dietitian about supplementation in addition to the food sources is wise.
Reviewed December 2012