The Dietary Guidelines recommend eating 2 servings of fish a week. But does fried fish count?
Long-time listener Jim S. suggested this week’s topic. He writes:
“I know that fried fish is high in calories and contains trans fats, but would a Fishwich from McDonalds or a fish fry from Long John Silvers still count as a serving of fish as far as the beneficial fats go?”
There are really a few different questions embedded in Jim’s query. First off, is the type of fish used in fast food restaurants a good source of omega-3 fats? Although the kind of fish used by these establishments has changed over the years, these days they are serving mostly pollock and hoki. Both of these fish provide about 500 mg of omega-3s per serving, or about one-third the recommended daily intake. That’s quite a bit more than you’d get from orange roughy or cod but nowhere near as much omega-3 as you’d get in a serving of salmon—which contains enough omega-3 to cover you for two days.
A second question is whether these omega-3s would still be present after the fish is deep-fried—and, by and large, they would. Unfortunately, the fried fish will also contain a substantial amount of trans fats as well as other harmful compounds created when you heat oil to high temperatures.
See also: What Oils Are Best For Cooking?
Do the Benefits Outweigh the Dangers?
I think what Jim might be asking is whether the benefits of the omega-3s in the fish outweigh the harmful effects of the deep frying—and here’s one way of looking at it: A serving of fried fish will provide about 33% the recommended daily minimum for omega-3s but 200% of the recommended daily maximum for trans fats.
In terms of whether fried fish “counts” as a serving of fish, I assume Jim is thinking of the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommend eating at least two servings of fish a week. Because the powers-that-be were trying to keep things simple, the guidelines are mum about how the fish should or shouldn’t be cooked—so I guess we can “count” that Fishwich as a serving. But who really gains or loses from slipping through that loophole?
Sometimes it’s tempting to approach dietary guidelines in the same spirit that we approach the tax code. You try to take advantage of every available credit and deduction to reduce what you owe. But in this case, you’re both the taxpayer and the tax collector. You benefit when you make healthy choices. And by the same token, you’re the one who pays the price by taking advantage of a loophole like this one.
Is it Ever OK to Eat Fried Fish?
In terms of the net impact on your health, broiled, baked, or steamed fish is obviously the way to go. Sometimes, however, we’re in situations where we have to settle for the lesser of two evils. If forced to choose between fried fish and fried chicken, I’d probably go with the fish. Both would have the harmful trans fats, but at least the fish would also have some beneficial omega-3s. On the other hand, if your choice was between fried fish and broiled chicken, I think you’d be better off with the chicken—and without the omega-3s.
Finally, if you absolutely love fried fish, it’s OK to indulge every once in a while. Remember, it’s not your worst days or your best days, but how you eat most days that determines your “nutritional grade point average.” In the interests of damage control, I suggest you choose a filet rather than bite-sized nuggets in order to maximize the ratio of fish (and omega-3s) to fried coating (and trans fats). If you can bring yourself to, leave some of the crispy coating (and most of the fries) on the plate.
Keep in Touch
Thanks to Jim for his question. If you have a question that you think would make a good show topic, or you need to settle a nutrition-related bet with your spouse or roommate, first check the show archives to see if I’ve already covered it. (After almost 4 years of Nutrition Diva podcasts, it’s pretty likely I have.) If I haven’t, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or post your question on the Nutrition Diva Facebook page. I answer a lot of listener questions in my free weekly newsletter, so if you’ve sent a question my way, be sure you’re signed up to receive that.