Is fish really brain food?

By Ruth Joseph, August 13, 2009

When I was a small child, I was always told by my grandmother to “Eat your fish — it gives brains”. My imagination would run riot as I visualised small pieces of fish somehow forcing themselves into my head. As I grew older, I still tried to heed her advice, but with an air of teenage scepticism. Now with grandchildren of my own and a nutrition qualification under my belt, I am able re-examine that old wives’ tale.

I knew that fish contained plenty of zinc which was needed for good brain health and yes, had assumed that this was the basis for the story. But now, in the August 2009 edition of the American Journal of Nutrition, investigators claim that the omega fish oils in fatty fish “can help to ward off dementia later in life”.

The vast study explored 14, 960 separate participants in seven countries: the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Peru, Venezuela, Cuba, China and India, and found after assessing their cognitive deterioration — a decrease in understanding — followed up by personal interviews, that apart from the Indian participants, fish consumption was associated with a lesser rate of dementia in lower- to middle-income countries. Many of the participants were older than 65.

However, simply eating oily fish will not offset our junk food-heavy and sedentary lives. A study also published by the American Journal of Nutrition emphasises a need for wholegrains, nuts, eggs, olives and their oil, plus green leafy vegetables — ie, foods that are rich in Vitamin E — to help lower the incidence of Alzheimer’s Disease.

And as studies carried out at Bristol University point out, both mental and physical exercise can reduce the risk of clinical depression and dementia in later life by 30-40 per cent. And as another recent study has found, omega 3 oils are also key in warding off heart disease.

Eat your fish — it gives brains

Ruth Joseph's grandmother

So it all points to eating well, adding oily fish and exercising body and mind where possible. It is a good idea to consult your fishmonger and start celebrating fish that are sustainable and freely available.
Buy fresh mackerel fillets or very fresh sardines brushed with a little chilli oil and lemon juice, grilled until golden-crisp and served with steamed cauliflower and mashed potato.

The old wartime dish of sardines on wholemeal toast becomes a “super meal”, especially if there’s a salad on the side.

If you are making pasta, make a tasty sauce by frying one chopped onion in a little olive oil. When soft, add chopped fresh cherry tomatoes, chopped olives and the drained contents of a tin of anchovies.

Simmer for a second, folding in a bag of young spinach leaves, a handful of torn basil and pour over your cooked pasta for the ultimate health supper.

Or try my mother’s recipe for salmon rissoles which I have lightened to make it healthier. I make a large amount as these rissoles freeze so well, and make a delicious lunch or starter for a dinner party with a watercress salad and a dill and caper sauce mixed with fromage frais. Just reheat in the microwave or oven.

Salmon Rissoles

For 24 medium rissoles

6 tins of responsibly sourced salmon
Fresh black pepper
6 free range eggs
25g flat-leaf parsley
120 ml olive oil
150g matzah meal plus extra to roll rissoles

● Skin and bone salmon, and put the fish plus liquid in a large bowl.
● Add black pepper — no salt. Separate yolks and whites of eggs.
● Place whites and chopped parsley into food processor. ● Process until parsley is tiny flecks and whites are fluffy (or just finely chop the herbs and whisk the egg whites until they are stiff).
● Add the oil to the fish with yolks and mix well. Fold in the egg whites and the matzah meal, maintaining as much lightness as possible.
● Leave the mixture to stand for 10 minutes.
● Form into shapes, roll in more matzah meal and place under grill.
● Grill gently until golden brown.
● Serve with a grated carrot, beetroot salad and chunks of really good granary bread or new potatoes.

Last updated: 1:40pm, August 13 2009