March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
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. Studies show that improved memory is just one of many brain-boosting benefits associated with 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, or DHA, goes straight to your head. "DHA is actually present at the nerve endings in our brain," says Keri Gans, RD, 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.
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," says Gans. "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? The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends adults consume at least 8 ounces of seafood per week. This works out to be two 4-ounce servings of fish. 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. To make sure the body stays in top aerobic condition to power through exercise, 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 individuals who follow vegetarian or vegan diets, all is not lost — getting DHA is possible, just perhaps more difficult. Algae is a source of DHA, and is used to make vegetarian DHA supplements. Ground flax seed, walnuts and chia seeds are other vegetarian sources of omega-3s. However, Gans warns that our bodies may convert only about 5 percent of plant-based omega-3s to DHA. If your primary intake of DHA comes from vegetables or non-oily fish, consider speaking to a doctor or registered dietitian nutritionist about supplementation.
Want to get started tonight? Learn how to prepare your fish just right by watching this video on how to broil fish.