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Study finds Gulf fish high in Omega-3 fatty acids

The answer to Mississippi’s epidemic rates of heart disease and strokes could be near at hand swimming in the Gulf of Mexico. Researchers from the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory have discovered that Gulf fish are high in levels of Omega-3 oils that help protect against heart attacks and other types of inflammatory diseases.

Dr. Julia Lytle and her husband, Dr. Thomas Lytle, did groundbreaking research in the late 1990s that showed Gulf fish across the board contain Omega-3 fatty acids protective against diseases. The information was published in scientific journals, but the public has remained largely unaware of it even as the Omega-3 health benefits of cold water fish like salmon have been touted widely.

“So many people I have talked to who are educated and well read have said, ‘We thought we had to eat salmon to get our Omega-3s,’” Julia Lytle said. “That is what has been popularized since the original studies were done looking at the Eskimo diets that showed Eskimos had no heart disease or other inflammatory diseases.”

The Lytle’s research has proven warm water fish from the Gulf have similar health benefits. And recently the couple, both now retired from the research lab, have received a grant to publicize their findings. Approximately 20,000 copies of a brochure on the topic have been printed for distribution at welcome centers, fish markets, libraries, hospitals and other outlets. The brochure is available online at http://www.usm.edu/gcrl/omega-3/omega-3brochure.pdf/.

Many of the most common killers in the U.S are caused by inflammation. Omega-3s are important because they are anti inflammatory.

“At our back door, we have fish right here that we now know contain Omega-3 fats,” Lytle said. “We really get excited about it because it does impact everybody’s health. With Mississippi having one of the highest levels of many of these diseases, it is great news about how you can manage your health by changing your diet and including Gulf fish.”

The Lytle’s work looked systematically at fish through the Gulf of Mexico, 60 different species including those that are popular food sources and those that aren’t. They looked at different sizes, sexes and ages of fish. And the findings were firm — all of the Gulf fish have significant levels of Omega-3.

“From early 1970s on until the 1990s, everything would read, ‘It is important to get Omega-3 in your diets by eating coldwater fish such as salmon,’” Lytle said. “That advice continued without really testing to see whether fish from warm waters had Omega-3s. The net result of our research was that all Gulf fish contain Omega-3 fats. We had papers in scientific journals at the time, but it doesn’t get down to the grass roots if that is all you do. The Coastal Impact Assistance Program awarded us a grant to get the information out to the people in a way that people could understand, so they knew warm water fish were healthy and have important consequences.”

The brochure lists 45 species in the Gulf of Mexico including some that aren’t usually on the dinner plate. Lytle said the fish are all edible as long as they are kept on ice until ready to eat.

Omega-3 is found in fish fat. Gulf fish in general are leaner than coldwater fish. But eating more warm water fish results in the same health benefits as smaller quantities of fattier fish.

“Because Gulf fish are so lean you can eat eight ounces easily and get as much Omega-3 as a four-ounce fish that is less fatty,” Lytle said.

Omega-3 helps counteract the impact of another fatty acid, Omega-6, that is inflammatory. There is an overabundance of Omega-6 in the American diet due to people eating fried foods and processed foods that contain vegetable oils high in Omega-6.

“Studies show definitely Omega-6 fatty acids promote inflammation,” Lytle said. “And the medical community is discovering more and more diseases in America — including arthritis and cancer—are caused by chronic inflammation.”

Research indicates primitive man probably had a ratio of 50% Omega-3 and 50% Omega-6. Today, however, people can have as much as 50 times more Omega-6 as Omega-3.

“We must have the Omega-6s, but not too much of them,” Lytle said. “We need balance in our diet to keep Omega-6s from becoming chronically inflammatory in our system. They are finding more and more diseases are initiated by the chronic inflammatory responses. Most of the medical community and food science experts feel an optimum level would be no more than four times the Omega-6s to Omega-3.”

It won’t work just to add Gulf fish to a diet two or three times per week if one doesn’t eliminate some of the fried and processed foods full of vegetables oils high in Omega-6.

“Look at the Asian countries that have a much higher diet of seafood, and they don’t have heart attacks and these inflammatory responses,” Lytle said. “In the past 15 years, American foods are showing up in the Asian countries, and it is statistically shown these diseases we have in the U.S. are now becoming prevalent there.”

For people who don’t like eating fish, Lytle recommends a daily fish oil capsule. Most of the fish oil capsules on the market are made from a small fish common in the Gulf, menhaden. Good vegetarian sources of Omega-3 include flaxseed oil, walnut and other seeds.

What is good news for the health of Mississippi could also been good news for the commercial fishing industry in the Gulf. Demand could increase if people adopt eating more Gulf fish. The word is getting out through the marketing campaign.

“Our brochures are in the fish markets,” Lytle said. “They have been running out of them and asking for more. We are encouraging them to bring in more species that people wouldn’t eat before. We now know all are good if handled correctly. All are good to eat and all have Omega-3 fats in them. That is good news for our health’s sake.”

Just hold off on deep fat frying.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

About Becky Gillette

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