Numerous scientific studies suggest that eating fish, which contain omega-3 fatty acids, can reduce your risk of heart disease—if you’re a man. That’s because virtually all of the research on fish oil intake and heart disease has been conducted in men. Now, research recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association , suggests that women, too, may be able to reduce their risk of heart disease by eating fish regularly.

About the study

Researchers at Harvard University School of Public Health studied 84,688 women in the Nurses Health Study (NHS)—a large, ongoing study of 121,700 female registered nurses. The NHS began in 1976, at which time the women were all between the ages of 30 and 55. Ninety-eight percent of the women were white.

The women completed questionnaires about lifestyle habits and medical histories in 1976 and every two years thereafter. In 1980, 1984, 1986, 1990, and 1994, they also completed a dietary questionnaire, which included questions about their fish consumption. Women were excluded from this recent analysis if they failed to adequately complete the dietary questionnaire or their total food intake appeared to be implausibly high or low. In addition, women were excluded if they were diagnosed with any of the following medical conditions before 1980: angina, heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular disease, or cancer (other than non-melanoma skin cancer), or if they had undergone a coronary revascularization procedure.

Researchers reviewed the medical records of women whose questionnaires indicated that they had developed heart disease or suffered a heart attack as of June 1, 1996. The researchers also reviewed the National Death Index and death certificates to determine the cause of death for any women in the study who died as of the same date. Finally, they compared the fish oil consumption of women who developed or died of heart disease with the fish oil consumption of those who did not.

The findings

On average, women who ate fish 5 or more times per week were 34% less likely to develop or die from heart disease than women who ate fish less than once per month. Although eating fish five times per week may seem like a lot, even moderate fish consumption seemed to provide protection against heart disease. Eating fish just once per week reduced the risk of heart disease by 30% and eating fish 1 to 3 times per month reduced the risk by 20%. In particular, eating fish regularly reduced the risk of dying of heart disease even more than it reduced the risk of having a nonfatal heart attack.

In calculating these statistics, the researchers factored in the potential effects of age, smoking, and other risk factors for heart disease.

Although these results are interesting, there are some limitations to this study. As with any study that relies on participants to recall their food intake over long periods of time, the accuracy of the dietary information may have been compromised. In addition, this was a study of only women, though studies of men have confirmed this same type of information for years. Ninety-eight percent of the women in this study were white, so more research is needed to confirm this benefit in women of other racial groups.

How does this affect you?

It seems that eating fish regularly is as good for a woman’s heart as it is for a man’s. These findings not only add to an enormous body of evidence that consuming omega-3 fatty acids in fish can help ward off heart disease, but they are the first to show this benefit in women.

Although eating fish is an essential part of a heart healthy diet, it presents some risks for pregnant women. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration advises pregnant women to avoid eating shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tile fish. These fish may contain high levels of mercury, which may potentially harm a growing fetus. In addition, it is best to eat only cooked seafood during pregnancy, because cooking will kill any bacteria that may be present. In order to safely consume fish and other seafood during pregnancy, contact your local health department for information about the safety of fish caught in your area.

In addition to possibly preventing heart disease, seafood is an excellent source of protein and a tasty meat replacement. So even if you’re not likely to eat fish as a main course, you might consider the following:

  • Fish chowders
  • Tuna fish salad
  • Crab cakes
  • Grilled fish sandwich
  • Seafood pasta salad