Are you getting your omega-3s and omega-6s mixed up? All of the information about “omega-3” and “omega-6” fats and fatty acids can get confusing. And yet, they are essential fats our bodies need, especially the heart-healthy omega-3. Adding omega-3 to your diet can be as simple as becoming a fish cooking pro. Here are some tips for becoming more heart-healthy.

But first, a science/health lesson on these two essential fatty acids.

Basically, the terms “omega-3” and “omega-6” are just chemistry terms to describe where the double bond to a carbon atom is in the molecule. Omega-6 and omega-3 are both “essential” fats, which means our bodies need them but cannot produce them on their own.

Omega-6 is what we usually think of as fat, and we get lots of it; in fact, we tend to get too much of it. It’s in corn oil and vegetable oil and animal fat—so basically the types of fat we usually get in a typical American diet. Omega-3 fatty acids are most concentrated in fish, algae, flaxseed oil, olive oil, and walnuts, and we generally don’t get enough of it. There are other sources, and most fats and oils are a combination of the two types. Our bodies “like” the type of omega-3 oil from fish better than flaxseed oil because the form it comes in from flaxseed oil is more work for the body to use, and the body doesn’t get as much “bang for the buck” as it does with fish. BUT, plant sources still count and help our bodies.

Why do we want more omega-3 fats in our diet? It contributes to heart health by helping triglyceride levels and helping to lower inflammation in our bodies. There is still a lot of research going on, and the jury is still out as to how significant the benefits are and for what conditions, but the evidence shows benefits for rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, prenatal care, depression, and even PMS. You can add some walnuts, flaxseed oil, and switch to olive oil, and that will help. Some people may want to add fish oil supplements (check with your doctor first!), but I’m a firm believer that real, delicious food is the best way to get the nutrients we need. So, if you’re not vegetarian, it’s probably time to start eating more fish. If you’re new to fish, you may want to start with some of the “mellower” flavors of fish, but know that the strong-tasting fish are often the ones with the most omega-3 benefit. Here are some suggestions for preparing and cooking fish, some recipe ideas, and some links with additional information.

Fish Tips

Fish tip #1: Do not overcook fish; it becomes rubbery, chewy, and downright unpalatable. To determine if fish is cooked, use a fork to gently pull the fish apart. If it comes apart (or “flakes”), it’s cooked; if it doesn’t flake, it needs a little more time. You can find videos that can show you what this means. Tuna steaks are a little different and cook more like a beefsteak. They can be just seared on the outside and left red or dark pink inside, or you can cook them all the way through, it’s your call based on what you like. (Cook it thoroughly if you’re pregnant or at high risk for illness or infection.)

Fish tip #2: When buying fresh fish, make sure it’s fresh. If you’re buying it at the meat counter, ask to smell it before you buy it. Fresh fish should smell “briny” but not “fishy.” Salmon will smell like fish, but it shouldn’t have that unappealing “fishy” smell. If the fish appears “mushy” or “slimy,” it is likely past its prime.

Fish tip #3: Frozen fish is less expensive and is flash frozen just after it’s caught. The filets will be individually portioned, so it’s as easy to cook for one person as it is to cook for many.

Fish tip #4: If you have a large filet, don’t cut it up until after it’s cooked, so it stays moist. Also, if there is skin on the fish, leave it on while it cooks for the same reason.

Fish tip #5: If you or your kids are new to fish, start with a mild fish like cod, halibut, or red snapper and then “work your way up” toward the stronger flavored fish like tuna and salmon.

Fish tip#6: Canned fish counts too! Salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring, and anchovies are all high in omega-3 fatty acids.

Fish tip#7: If you absolutely can’t stand the smell in your house, cook it on the grill.

Recipe Suggestions

  • Fish doesn’t have to be fancy-schmancy. Salt, pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil is a good place to start if you like plainer foods. You can add a squirt of lemon juice, and tartar sauce goes with fish for a reason.
  • Dill weed is a nice herb to add to fish. You can add dill weed, some chopped or minced onion, salt, pepper, and lemon, wrap the filet in tin foil, and bake it or grill it.
  • Grilling fish can be an exercise in futility if you aren’t careful as it can flake as it cooks and falls into the coals. Tinfoil works, though you won’t get the same charbroiled flavor, or you can use a fish grilling “basket” or “cage.”
  • Try fish tacos. You can use fish that’s baked or grilled, then add shredded cabbage, some salsa (pico de gallo is good), and a spicy sauce (such as a tomatillo ranch.) Authentic fish tacos are made with corn tortillas and cabbage, but make whatever you and your family like.
  • Teriyaki sauce, hollandaise sauce, salsa, or whatever kind of sauce you like can be great. You can put it on the side, and if it doesn’t work, you’ve tried something new but can still just add some lemon and tartar sauce.
  • A sweet and spicy salsa can be good with fish. Mangos, cilantro, red peppers, some lime, and a little zing of jalapeno are great on salmon or any fish.
  • If you like something sweeter, salmon filets with honey brushed on the tops, dipped in chopped nuts such as walnuts or pine nuts, drizzled with balsamic vinegar and baked is delicious.
  • Check out the spices at the grocery store for inspiration. Blackened seasoning, lemon pepper, or any type of premixed spice rub works well on fish.
  • Fish chowder is another good way to incorporate fish into your meals. You can find recipes online. Be sure to add the fish at the end, so it just has enough time to cook, or it will be chewy and tough.
  • Do you like the flavors when you go out for sushi? Coat tuna steaks in sesame seeds, sear them, so they’re still dark pink inside (not if you’re pregnant or at high risk for illness), slice and, serve it over a bed of shredded cabbage with wasabi paste (you get it in powdered form in the Asian section and just add water) and some soy sauce. Serve it with rice and Asian slaw.

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