Eating Seafood to Help Prevent Stroke

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Making small changes in your diet can substantially reduce your stroke risk. Regularly eating seafood has been linked with reduced stroke rates. So, if you plan to start eating fish, or if you already love it, here are some important facts about seafood and your health.

Delicious salmon fillet in a pan with garlic and herbs
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Beneficial Types of Seafood

People who regularly consume seafood have a substantially lower rate of stroke than people who eat very little seafood or no seafood at all.

Fish that are not shellfish are described as finfish because they have fins. A common misconception is that finfish is healthy, while shellfish is just a treat. Surprisingly, it turns out that finfish and shellfish are both highly effective ways to prevent major illnesses such as stroke.

Researchers have identified some different characteristics between the various categories of seafood. And it turns out that fatty fish, lean fish, and shellfish, including shrimp and oysters, are all associated with a reduced risk of stroke, heart attack, and cancer.

Why Is Seafood Healthy?

There are a number of nutritional components of seafood that combine to give the body a disease-fighting advantage.

Seafood is low in sodium and high in potassium, a combination that helps maintain optimal blood pressure. High blood pressure contributes to stroke and heart disease. Iodine, a mineral needed for healthy thyroid function, is naturally present in seafood. Selenium, another mineral provided by seafood, is a disease-fighting antioxidant. Seafood is also a good source of protein, which is an important component in most of your body’s functions. Vitamins B12, D, A, and E are also abundant in seafood.

Healthy Fats

Seafood is rich in certain types of fats that are often referred to as "healthy fats." These fats help protect the brain and nerves, while also preventing the buildup of harmful fats and cholesterol in the blood vessels. These beneficial fats are described as long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) due to their chemical composition.

Many of the PUFAs in seafood are omega-3 fatty acids, including alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

As you can tell, there are a variety of nutrients found in seafood, and they each play a uniquely important role in maintaining your well being.

Effects of Preservation and Preparation

There are a number of different methods of preparing and preserving seafood, and it turns out that fresh, frozen, canned, and even raw seafood are all strongly linked with health benefits. Despite the different preparation and preservation methods, the healthy fats and other nutrients are plentiful in all of these forms of seafood. Canned seafood is the most cost-effective way to reap the health benefits of seafood.

Fried Fish

Fried fish, however, has been associated with an increased risk of stroke and heart disease. In fact, fried fish, which is a staple of the "stroke belt" diet, has been considered one of the leading contributors to stroke. This is primarily because fried fish, which is usually prepared with thick breading and relatively small amounts of fish, is also heavy in harmful trans and saturated fats.

Dried Fish

There is very little data about whether dried or smoked seafood is beneficial. These techniques incorporate dehydration and very high salt, and it is unclear if fish prepared this way retains sufficient fats to obtain any health benefits.

Is Seafood Harmful?

There have been some warnings about health problems that could be caused by consuming seafood. These warnings fall into three main categories.

Raw Fish

People who eat seafood that is not fully cooked run the risk of becoming sick from an infection. Partially cooked seafood or seafood that is not properly prepared can harbor living organisms that might not make you sick if the fish was completely cooked.

These infections are typically called parasites, which means (get ready to be grossed out) they are like little worms that invade the body. While this sounds horrible, and the illness is undeniably miserable, there are safe and effective medical treatments even for these creepy infections. Nevertheless, it is important to use sanitary measures and to thoroughly cook your seafood.

Parasites are not unique to seafood, and you can get very sick if you eat beef, pork, chicken, or any meat that is not fully cooked. The difference is that you are far more likely to intentionally eat raw fish than you are to eat any other type of raw meat because sushi, which is often deliberately made with raw fish, is very popular.

Overall, if sushi is prepared with high-grade fish in a clean and uncontaminated environment by a knowledgeable and careful sushi chef, it is highly unlikely that you would get an infection from it. The number of infections from sushi is very small in comparison to the amount of sushi consumption in the United States and throughout the world.

Even with the relatively low risk, any medical professional would tell you that there is absolutely never a guarantee that raw seafood is completely safe and free of infectious microorganisms.

Mercury in Fish

There has been a great deal of news about chemical toxicity (poisoning) from eating fish. In general, chemicals can contaminate seafood that may have come from a tainted or polluted environment.

Usually, the concerns regarding seafood toxins are specifically in regard to the elevated levels of mercury that have been detected in some types of seafood.

The difference between chemical toxins and infections is that infections can make you miserable and sick immediately, while toxins accumulate silently, causing a slow build-up of damage. Current warnings and recommendations allow a total consumption of two to three servings of low-mercury fish per week.

Mercury exposure is a concern, and thus it is recommended that you limit your consumption of large, predatory fish like tuna, swordfish, and shark, since these fish have the highest concentrations of mercury toxin. This is particularly true for those who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or who may become pregnant, according to both the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Spoiled Fish

Just like with any type of food poisoning, if fish is left to spoil, it can make you very sick. In general, the illnesses that you can get from spoiled seafood can make you sicker than the illnesses associated with raw fish.

Can You Just Take Fish Oil Pills?

Fish oil supplements became popular once it was discovered that the oil in seafood is valuable for your health. Seafood is rich in a number of omega-3 fatty acids. These oils have a number of important roles, in addition to prevention of strokes and heart disease. The oils that are naturally present in fish also play a role in infant brain development, and have been associated with a higher IQ.

Yet, if you want to get the benefits of fish oil, studies suggest that supplemental fish oil pills alone may not provide the same advantages as actually eating seafood. There are some nutritional components in seafood that are not perfectly replicated in supplement or pill form.

How to Choose a Fish Oil Supplement

If you opt to take a fish oil supplement, it is very important to purchase a high-quality supplement from a reputable brand. The omega-3 fatty acids in fish are very fragile and prone to oxidize if not handled properly, which generates harmful free radicals. Thus, fish oil supplements that have not been manufactured with great care can do more harm than good.

Check the label for the "USP" verification mark, which stands for United States Pharmacopeia. This mark indicates the product has been made according to good manufacturing practices and contains the ingredients listed on the label.

Nevertheless, there are no harmful effects associated with high-quality fish oil supplements, and there may be a small benefit. So if you can't stand fish, but really want to try to reap the health benefits of seafood, you might gain a small advantage by using supplements.

A Word From Verywell

Seafood, including fresh-caught fish, shellfish, and canned fish, have all been strongly linked with health benefits as well as some risks. Overall, the advantages of regularly consuming seafood outweigh the disadvantages.

Seafood is a type of cuisine that elicits strong feelings among people of all ages. Some are just simply not fish eaters, while most people only eat a few types of seafood, but not other types. And for many foodies, seafood and shellfish are sought after, high-end delicacies.

If you do not like all of the different types of seafood, you can still reap the health benefits of fish by eating the kinds that you like.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Heidi Moawad, MD
Heidi Moawad is a neurologist and expert in the field of brain health and neurological disorders. Dr. Moawad regularly writes and edits health and career content for medical books and publications.