You may have caught recent news reports that fried fish can cause heart problems. That came from a large study in the journal Circulation: Heart Failure, which found that eating fried fish at least once a week was associated with a 48 percent higher risk of heart failure.
This wasn’t the first study to raise red flags about fried fish. A 2005 study, for instance, linked frequent consumption of fried fish to a 44 percent increased risk of stroke. And findings from a study in 2011 in Neurology suggested that one reason why people in the stroke belt states of the South have higher rates of stroke is that Southerners eat more fried fish than other Americans.
Still, this is no reason to hang up the fishing reel. After all, the latest study, which included only women, also reaffirmed that fish is good for your heart—if you broil or bake it. Those who ate five or more servings a week of baked/broiled fish over a 10-year period had a 30 percent reduced risk of heart failure, compared to women who ate less than one serving a month. Fattier fish such as salmon—which are higher in heart-healthy omega-3 fats—were most protective.
What’s the catch?
There are several reasons why fried fish may not have the same health benefits as baked or broiled fish. First, the types of fish that are typically fried—haddock, cod, catfish and other white fish—tend to be low in omega-3 fatty acids. Even in the new study, white fish that was baked or broiled was less protective than fattier fish. In addition, some research indicates that frying may further reduce omega-3s. Frying also adds calories, especially if the fish is batter-fried, and this can contribute to weight gain and increased health risks.
Another snag in the line: When oils are heated to high temperature, they form potentially harmful compounds, especially when the oil is reused over long periods, which is is common in fast-food and other restaurants. And many restaurants still fry with partially hydrogenated oils (a source of trans fats) or highly saturated beef tallow, both of which have adverse effects on cholesterol.
Keep in mind, too, that eating fried fish may be a marker for a less-healthy lifestyle in general. In fact, though researchers control for most such factors, the women in the study who ate more fried fish also ate fewer fruits and vegetables, were less physically active and were more likely to smoke, for example, than those who ate their fish baked or broiled.
Bottom line: Eating fried fish on occasion is fine, especially if you serve it with a side of steamed broccoli and carrots, say, and baked, not fried, potatoes. But you’re best off choosing omega-3-rich fish, such as salmon, mackerel and sardines, and baking, poaching or broiling it. Aim for at least two servings a week of a variety of non-fried fatty fish.
If you do fry, keep these tips in mind:
- Pan-frying (sautéing) is better than deep-frying. Use a small amount of oil and don’t add the fish until the oil is hot, but never so hot that the oil smokes.
- Olive oil is good for sautéing. It is more stable when heated (and thus forms fewer byproducts) than corn, soybean, sunflower, safflower and canola oils.
- Don’t bread the fish—the coating absorbs more oil.
- Use fresh oil every time you fry. It may be hard to avoid reused oil in restaurants, however.
- If you eat fried fish or other fried foods at restaurants, ask whether they use partially hydrogenated oils. Some have switched to healthier oils.