Eating Small Fish—Bones and All—May Promote Longevity

Eating Small Fish—Bones and All—May Promote Longevity

While large fish like salmon and tuna have been in the spotlight for their health benefits, recent evidence shows that fish lower on the food chain also have a lot to offer. In fact, a study published recently in the journal Public Health Nutrition found a significant association between eating small fish—from the bones to the heads—and a reduced risk of mortality in women.

“Few studies have focused on the effect of the intake of small fish specifically on health outcomes,” Chinatsu Kasahara, lead author and associate professor at Nagoya University’s Graduate School of Medicine in Japan, said in a statement. The link between small fish intake and reduced mortality risk in women “underscores the importance of these nutrient-dense foods in people’s diets.”

Though the study was limited to Japan, the researchers believe the results can be extrapolated to the global population. “While our findings were only among Japanese people, they should also be important for other nationalities,” Kasahara said.

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Eating small fish is common in Japan, and Kasahara said her interest in the study topic was personal—she’s been eating small fish since childhood. “I now feed my children these,” she said.

To assess the relationship between small fish intake and mortality, Kasahara and her colleagues recruited 80,802 Japanese participants between the ages of 35 and 69 for the study. There were 34,555 men and 46,247 women.

They used food frequency questionnaires to analyze participants’ diets, focusing on whether and how often they consumed small fish like Atlantic capelin, dried young sardines, Japanese smelt, small horse mackerel, and young sweetfish.

In the nine-year study period, 2,482 participants died. Of those, 1,495 were cancer-related. 

After adjusting for factors like age, body mass index (BMI), alcohol consumption, and smoking frequency, researchers discovered a significant correlation between regular small fish intake among women and a reduction in cancer-related mortality death from any cause.

Women who ate small fish one to three times per month had a 32% lower risk of all-cause mortality, and 28% reduced odds of dying from cancer compared to those who didn’t eat small fish habitually. Those who ate small fish one to two times per week or three or more times a week had a 28% and 31% reduced risk of all-cause mortality, respectively, and 29% and 36% lower chance of cancer-related death.

The data revealed a similar trend in men, but the association between small fish consumption and lower odds of mortality was not statistically significant.

The reason for this wasn’t clear to researchers, but they hypothesized that it may be due to the smaller sample size of men in the study and factors not considered, like fish serving size and sex-specific cancer diagnoses.

Historically, small fish have been overlooked in Western society. 

“We often undervalue these fish in the Western world, favoring higher profile fish,” Sharon Palmer, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist and co-founder of Food+Planet, told Health. “Currently, a great deal of the world’s small fish supply is being used as fishmeal for aquaculture.” 

But small fish are incredibly nutrient-dense, especially because they’re typically eaten whole. The head, bones, and organs of small fish are rich in calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin A.

Smaller fish like sardines and anchovies are also “a rich source of nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids [and] protein,” Roxana Ehsani, RD, a board-certified sports dietitian based in Miami, Florida, told Health.

The micronutrients found in small fish have been shown to support bone, immune, heart, muscle, skin, and metabolic health. They may also reduce bodily inflammation, which, when chronic, can increase the risk of conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and asthma. 

“Plus, these types of fish are often more sustainable than other larger fish as they are more plentiful, lower in the food chain, and short lived,” Palmer added. “This means that they also typically contain fewer environmental toxins.” 

The varieties of small fish readily available stateside include anchovies, sardines, small mackerel, and herring. Kipper and smelt can also be found but can be trickier to track down.

While the fish counter may carry some of these small fish, your best bet is actually the canned foods aisle. Canned sardines and anchovies are in nearly every large grocery store across America, and many stores also carry canned mackerel and herring. Small fish options are also available in certain global food markets, such as Asian supermarkets, often in dried form. Some markets may also carry a variety of small fish options in the frozen section.

“While opting for small fish offers an approach to more localized, resilient food systems by providing nutrition with a lower marine ecosystem impact, it’s still crucial that these stocks be well managed given that small fish play a critical role within these ecosystems,” Palmer said.

To ensure that you’re buying sustainably-produced small fish, ask your fishmonger how they were sourced or scour the food label for sourcing and sustainability information. You can also search Seafood Watch, a database of environmental information on a wide array of brands. 

Small fish can make for a nutritious snack when eaten straight out of the can or you can add them to numerous dishes for a dash of briny, umami flavor. Try any variety in salads, stir-fries, rice dishes, soups, curries, or stews, and opt for anchovies in pasta puttanesca, Caesar salad dressing, and bagna cauda.

Another idea: Make a tasty fish salad mixing sardines, mackerel, or herring with mayonnaise, celery, capers, and red onion.

“To reap the most health benefits from small fish,” Ehsani suggested, “aim for at least two servings per week.”

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