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Get hooked on fish for a healthy heart

Manitoba has an abundance of rivers, lakes and streams—not to speak of northern ocean access—that team with dozens of species of fish. While fishing is a sport prairie citizens enjoy year-round (including ice-fishing in winter), the experience of the catch often takes precedence over actually consuming the catch. Some people claim they don’t like the taste of fish, while others are concerned about potential dangers of mercury poisoning. And yet fish of all species are one of the best sources of protein of any food plus supplying other health benefits. So what is the answer to this dilemma?

It is always a good idea to first check out food sources raised close to home, in this case fish. Manitoba pickerel—also known as walleye—ranks near the top of bestselling freshwater fish across North America. When cooked, it yields flaky white mild-flavoured flesh that even those who claim not to like fish can enjoy.

Low in calories

Pickerel is low in total fat; it has negligible amounts of saturated fat with the remainder falling into the unsaturated category. This means one serving (four-ounce fillet) is low in calories (150 or so) with the type of fat which has a positive effect on serum cholesterol and protective of the heart in other ways, as well as providing a significant amount of high-quality protein. Since pickerel is in the category of low-fat fish, it does not contain high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids which is usually touted as one of the more significant health benefits provided by fish—at least by fatty fish.

However, pickerel does contain some omega-3—documented as important for the cardiovascular system by lowering blood pressure and thus hypertension, inhibiting the formation of blood clots and helping reduce plaque build-up in arteries—and that together with its well-balanced protein profile and small amount of fat makes it a high calibre healthy food.

Because pickerel does not contain large stores of fat, the concentration of dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) shown to be carcinogenic is also lower. However, the fish is subject to some mercury accumulation in its lean tissue—the amount depending on where it is caught. Mercury is a heavy metal that can do damage to the brain, kidney and lungs if ingested in sufficient amounts. In spite of some contamination, research scientists agree it is worth the risk to consume fish on a moderate basis—two three-ounce servings a week—to enjoy the health benefits it offers.

High-quality protein

It should be noted that oily fish such as salmon, Arctic char, mackerel and tuna are not only a source of high quality protein, and a host of vitamins and minerals, but also offer significant amounts of omega-3 essential fatty acids which, as mentioned above, are conducive to heart health, and have also been shown to reduce chronic inflammation and possibly mitigate the risk of some types of cancer.

Salmon is a favourite with many consumers and one of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids, but over the last decade, studies have found considerable contamination with PCBs in its fatty tissue. This is particularly true of the farmed varieties of salmon which are fed a diet of smaller fish—a source of contaminants. The fish also receive antibiotics which, if spread in human population in large quantities, could lead to antibiotic resistance (meaning bacteria would no longer respond to these drugs).

An alternative to salmon is Arctic char, which is in the same family and one of the purest fish available in the marketplace. It lives in the cold and clean waters of the North which as yet are less contaminated, and marketed out of places like Cambridge Bay and Rankin Inlet to places south. It is interesting to note there is an Arctic char farm near Anola—one of a handful scattered across Canada—that has been successful in raising the fish by using cold clear water of an aquifer. Look for it in local stores and restaurants—and although the price is relatively steep, the health benefits are enormous.

There are a few tips when cooking fish that should be observed to gain the maximum health benefits. Keep fish low-fat by baking or poaching instead of battering and deep-frying. Secondly, do not overcook—the flesh is tender and does not do well with severe heat.