It’s common knowledge that eating fish is good for your heart. Well, so much for common knowledge! Studies now show that the way you prepare the fish you eat may actually be more important than the fish itself. If you prefer your fish fried, you might be eating your way to a stroke rather than keeping yourself healthy.
A new study, conducted by researchers at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, found that those who live in America’s “stroke belt” — where the mortality rate from stroke is more than 10 percent higher than the rest of the country — may face this increased risk at least partially because of their greater intake of fried fish. The stroke belt is comprised of several Southern states including North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas.
This research is part of the Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) study, a project sponsored by the National Institutes of Health to help pinpoint the risk factors for stroke. This study included 21,675 volunteers from all over the nation with an average age of 65. Of these participants, 34 percent reside in the stroke belt. Another 21 percent inhabit a region within the stroke belt deemed the “stroke buckle,” an area around the coasts of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia with even greater rates of stroke mortality than those of the majority of the stroke belt. The remaining 44 percent live in other states around the country.
Each of the subjects was initially questioned over the phone about their eating habits, including the frequency of their consumption of various types of seafood and if they eat it fried. This was followed up with a physical examination.
Across the United States, only 23 percent of participants ate the American Heart Association-recommended two servings a week or more of non-fried fish. But those living in the stroke belt were 32 percent more likely than those in other parts of the country to report eating two or more servings of fried fish weekly. The participants who reside in the stroke buckle were 11 percent less likely to eat two or more servings of non-fried fish each week than their counterparts in other regions.
African-Americans also showed more of a preference for fried fish than Caucasians. The African-Americans polled were three-and-a-half times as likely to eat two or more servings of fried fish on a weekly basis than the whites who participated. This could be a contributing factor to incredibly elevated stroke rates of African-Americans. Half of African-American women die of either stroke or heart disease, and African-American men and women are twice as likely to die due to stroke than Caucasians.
Fish is very healthy (if not contaminated with mercury and dioxin), and recommended to be eaten at least twice a week by the American Heart Association, because of the omega-3 fatty acids certain varieties provide. When baked, grilled, or lightly sautéed, fish appears to retain all of the benefits of the omega-3s. However, frying fish creates oxidized fats. And those aren’t healthy.
Scientists have known for years that oxidized fats are very bad for us. Research that took place back in 1998 at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in San Francisco determined that oxidized fats speed the buildup of arterial plaque. Laboratory rabbits were fed a high cholesterol diet with one-third of their calories coming from fat, similar to typical Western eating habits. Half of the rabbits were provided with higher levels of oxidized fats in their food. Three months into the study, the rabbits fed the oxidized fat diet had twice as many fatty deposits on their arteries than the other rabbits. Their cholesterol levels were also higher, both overall and in terms of the LDL cholesterol that is specifically linked to heart disease.
Many people living in the stroke belt have been enjoying their fried fish for years and aren’t about to change their habits, despite the risk of stroke and other problems. But there are ways to make improvements even when frying. First, stop using all high omega-6 oils, such as safflower, sunflower, and corn oil for any type of cooking. High consumption of omega-6 fatty acids just by itself produces NEFAs in the blood that are associated with sudden heart attacks.
Use extra virgin olive oil in salads or to add to cooked foods, but not for high temperature cooking. Unrefined walnut oil is also good, but again only for low temperature uses.
You can use virgin coconut oil (high in beneficial saturated fats and medium chain triglycerides) for most mid-temperature cooking. However, coconut oil has a smoke point (the temperature at which it smokes and oxidizes) of about 350 degrees F (171 C), which means it is not suitable for high temperature cooking. Other choices for mid-temperature cooking include virgin olive oil and even organic, grass-fed butter in small amounts.
Use avocado oil for high temperature cooking. Avocado oil has a very high smoke point by comparison to other cooking oils. It will not burn or smoke until it reaches 520 F (271 C), which is ideal for searing meats and frying in a Wok. Another good cooking oil is rice bran oil 495 F (257 C). Again, look for organic, cold-processed oil. One other possibility is Spectrum Naturals High Heat Canola oil, which can handle temperatures up to about 450 degrees F.
Making changes, one baby step at a time, can eventually make a world of difference.