Fish is brain food. We’ve heard that one for a long time, but many people may not realize how true that adage is. When I was young I heard that but never really thought about what it meant. I’m still not sure exactly what the original reasoning was, but as we learn more about the human body, and the effects of our diet on our bodies, that old saying sounds more and more important. Fish *really* is brain food. And fish is also heart food. And much more; the benefits of seafood are legion.

Some fish have more fat than others. Deep, cold water fish tend to have the most, as well as those who spend part of their life cycle in that environment. Fortunately for us, the fat that fish contain is of a particular type of fatty acids called Omega 3 fatty acids. The most well known of the Omega-3 fatty acids are Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) and Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Both of these fatty acids are fundamental building blocks of our own central nervous system as well, and like most other creatures, our bodies cannot manufacture them by itself (unlike other necessary substances like Vitamin D for example). We must either eat DHA and EPA or precursor Omega-3 fatty acids that our bodies can convert into DHA and EPA.

Omega-3 fatty acids such as DHA make up a large portion of the brain and are critical in the development of our eyes. Our modern diet has basically replaced many of the Omega-3s we historically ate (evolutionarily speaking) with Omega-6s (from oils like Canola oil that are used in abundance in our modern diet) and many feel that we suffer now for it. Basically, our brains, and the sheaths around all of our nerves are no longer made up of the proper fats as our bodies use Omega-6s in place of Omega-3s while we grow and develop. But Omega-3s do more than just act as brain goop. Studies have shown that the consumption of Omega-3 fatty acids has a beneficial effect on our cardiovascular system. DHA has been shown to increase the level of HDL (High-Density Lipoprotein, the “good” cholesterol) in the body, as well as lower the levels of LDL (Low-Density Lipoprotein, the “bad” cholesterol). Their consumption has also been shown to increase the particle size of the LDL, all of which have been shown in studies to have an overall positive effect on our heart. The consumption of Omega-3 fatty acids has also been linked with helping the body maintain stable blood sugar levels, especially important for those with diabetes. And recent studies have shown that a Omega-3s in the diet may be a contributing factor in the delay or prevention of Alzheimer’s disease. Studies link Omega-3s to helping with depression, arthritis, and boosting the immune system. Essentially, by incorporating this much needed type of fat back into our diet, we can potentially ward off many of the afflictions that have begun to plague us, presumably due to the effects of our modern diet lacking in this incredible and important nutrient.

Omega-3 fatty acids move up the food chain, manufactured by algae and accumulating in high concentrations in fish such as Salmon, Sardines, and menhaden (generally speaking, the more oily or fatty a fish is, the more Omega-3s they have). And those Omega-3s do their work in us when we eat those fish as sushi. And a raw piece of fish will have more fat than one that is cooked. Cooking fats can also change their properties, and even “good” fats can become “bad” fats when exposed to high heat. So sushi is really the way to go. There is a caveat, however. With the advent of “fish farms” and various other ways to grow our food in controlled environments, things have changed for fish as well. Just as we get less Omega-3 fatty acids in our diet, farmed fish also receive less Omega-3 fatty acids in their diet (remember, it moves up the food chain). That means that we don’t get the aforementioned benefits while eating them. Farmed salmon not only has significantly less Omega-3s, but can also contain antibiotics and other wastes found in the waters where they are farmed, since they do not get the advantage of swimming in the open ocean. The same goes for shrimp, tuna, or any other seafood that is kept in pens and fed “fish meal” instead of its normal diet. In some cases, you may as well be eating pork.

When I go out for sushi, I always ask if the salmon is farmed or wild. I eat the wild stuff, but forgo the farmed variety (and this even goes for fish at the market). Some fish is now impossible to find in the wild variety, such as hamachi (yellowtail). For this, I make an exception, which I feel is understandable given the alternative of never eating hamachi. But farm raised shrimp never finds its way onto my plate. It tastes different and has an entirely different texture. More and more tuna also now starts its life in the wild but is then caught and raised into blandness. I’m note telling everyone to stop eating farmed varieties of seafood, but personally I notice a huge difference and prefer to have the kind that benefits my heart and mind as well as simply being nutritious.

Sushi is great no matter the reason you eat it. But when you have the opportunity to eat something that tastes great, has a rich history, and also can be considered a beneficial food, to me that says “this is the perfect food.” Eat your sushi from now on and think to yourself that you are not just enjoying yourself; you are also doing a real service for your heart, brain, and well-being.

Warren Ransom

I have always been fascinated by the creation and culture of different foods, particularly sushi and sashimi in the modern era of Japanese cuisine. I am a classically trained chef and sushi connoisseur, also having operated a food service company and enjoy investigating and experimenting with food around the world.

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