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The Whys and Hows of Eating Fish

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Everyone knows that fish is healthy, yet most Americans do not get the recommended two servings per week.1-2 Why is that? There is plenty of uncertainty surrounding fish consumption, including wondering if it is safe and if it is worth the risk? In addition, with the numerous varieties of fish available, it is hard to know what to buy and how to prepare it. In this article, we will clear up the confusion about the safety of seafood and help you learn the health benefits of increasing your consumption before, during and after your cancer treatment. What a great New Year’s resolution to add to your list this year!

Why is fish so good for me?

Fish contains a number of beneficial nutrients, including protein, vitamins, minerals and Omega-3 fatty acids. All seafood, including shellfish, are rich in calcium and phosphorus – both critical for bone development – and lean protein – important for cell development, healing and muscle growth. Protein is particularly important for cancer patients, as it can help boost the immune system and heal the body in between treatments and after surgery. Since fish is a lean protein source, it is easier for the body to tolerate, especially for those experiencing digestive issues from cancer treatment, such as nausea or diarrhea.

One of the best reasons to eat fish, fatty fish in particular, is that it is the highest food source of Omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s are an essential nutrient to help the brain and heart function and work more efficiently.3 These fatty acids can help prevent inflammation, as well as lower blood pressure and triglyceride levels.3-4 Recent research has shown that Omega-3 intake may be linked to a decreased risk of cancer, as well as depression, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease.4-5

Not all fish contain Omega-3 fatty acids. Fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, and sardines are among the highest sources. Besides fatty fish, walnuts, flaxseeds and canola oil are also good plant sources of Omega 3s, however they contain significantly less than the fatty fishes listed above.4 Many people get their Omega-3s not only from food, but from supplements like fish oil. It is important to remember that by choosing fish oil supplements alone, you would be missing out on the many other benefits of eating fish, such as lean protein and vitamins and minerals. Always remember to talk to your physician before taking fish oils or any other supplements during your cancer treatment.

So what are the risks?

Now you know why fish is so good for you, but what are the downsides? Fish, particularly large fish, such as shark, swordfish and king mackerel contain higher amounts of mercury. High levels of mercury in the body have been shown to cause nerve damage and could cause brain or nervous system problems in fetuses and young children. For this reason, pregnant and nursing women and young children should avoid fish that are high in mercury.4 They shouldn’t, however, avoid fish altogether. It has been shown that children whose mothers ate at least 2 servings per week of Omega-3 rich fish that also contains low levels of mercury, scored higher on development, intelligence, and behavior tests.4 Even if you are not pregnant or nursing, it would be wise to follow the above recommendations; you will get the benefits of fish without the possible mercury risks.

There are so many options, what should I buy?

If you go through any grocery story or health food aisles you will see many different options and varieties. As a rule, wild caught fish is a better option over farmed fish due to the higher content of Omega-3 fatty acids. Also, choose fish from the United States, instead of foreign fish, as some foreign countries lack sufficient laws and regulations on seafood.6 As mentioned above, smaller types fish will have less mercury, so choosing those options are better choices as well. If smells are bothersome during treatment, choose milder fish, or less “fishy” fish, such as cod or tilapia.

Putting it into Practice

The best way to find seafood that you like? Explore different varieties and different ways to eat it. Grilling and baking are not the only ways to cook seafood. Fish can be the star in burgers, soup and tacos. Compared with other meats, like beef or chicken, fish is a leaner protein source, with significantly less saturated fat and cholesterol. This recipe from our cookbook, The Meals to Heal Cookbook, is the perfect example of a way to substitute fish in place of a typical beef or chicken dish.

Parchment Paper Steamed Fish and Vegetables

  • 1 ½ pounds mild white fish, such as cod, tilapia, or halibut
  • Zest of 1 lemon
  • 1 scallion, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 6 cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh parsley


  1. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Fold the parchment paper in half, then open it back up and place the fish on one half, close to the crease.
  2. Combine the remaining ingredients and place on top of and around the fish.
  3. Fold the other half of the parchment over the top of the fish and vegetables. Working around the edges, fold the parchment over tightly in 1⁄4-inch folds, then fold up the ends to make a closed packet. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes. Remove from the oven.
  4. Place on a plate and carefully remove the fish from the paper and serve.

Switching up your usual baked chicken or steak recipe with salmon provides you with a lighter, vibrant flavor. The salmon is rich in heart-healthy Omega 3s, while the vegetables and herbs provide cancer-fighting antioxidants and fiber. Pair this meal with a whole grain, like quinoa or brown rice, for a nutritious and delicious meal.

While choosing and preparing fish can be overwhelming the health benefits are clear. All seafood is high in lean protein, an important component of a cancer patient’s diet. Rich in Omega 3s and bone-strengthening minerals, fatty fish is also an ideal main dish for heart health and cancer prevention. Don’t be afraid to try diverse types of seafood and different preparation methods – it will not only add variety to your diet, but also improve your health!

Excerpted from The Meals to Heal Cookbook by Susan Bratton and Jessica Iannotta, MS, RD, CSO, CDN. Copyright © 2016. Available from Da Capo Lifelong Books an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.


  1. Fish and Omega 3 Fatty Acids. American Heart Association. Accessed November 17, 2017.
  2. Papanikolaou Y, Brooks J, Reider C, Fulgoni VL. U.S. adults are not meeting recommended levels for fish and omega-3 fatty acid intake: results of an analysis using observational data from NHANES 2003–2008. Nutrition Journal. 2014;13:31.
  3. Fish and Omega 3 Fatty Acids. American Heart Association. Accessed November 19, 2017.
  4. Fish: Friend or Foe? Harvard University: TH Chan School of Public Health. Accessed November 19, 2017.
  5. Fish and Cancer Risk: 4 Things You Need to Know. American Institute for Cancer Research. Accessed November 17, 2017.
  6. The Smart Seafood Buying Guide. National Resources Defense Council. Accessed November 27, 2017.

Savor Health is a trusted cancer nutrition expert that patients, caregivers and healthcare enterprises rely on for safe, effective and evidence-based nutrition information and programs. Savor Health is working to put an end to the one third of cancer deaths due to severe malnutrition by providing cancer patients and survivors with individualized disease-specific nutrition solutions through nutritional counseling, menu planning, customized recipes and a 150 recipe cookbook – Meals to Heal.

To learn more about Savor Health please visit

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