I often hear people say that Asians are smarter.  Many would say that any differences in intelligence (or at least performances on tests) are due to their consistent cultural focus on learning and perfection. However, there might just be another reason they do better on math and science tests: they eat a lot of sushi (a fact of which I am very jealous).

You’ve probably heard people say that fish is better for you than any of the red meats.  Fish are chocked full of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, and are considered to be highly nutritious by the National Institutes of Health, the American Heart Association, and the US Department of Agriculture (in a roundabout way) – which include fish in their recommendations for healthy eating.

The Real Food Pyramid, Harvard School of Public Health

But above and beyond their normal health benefits, researchers have found another reason to eat seafood – it might just boost your intellect.  At least that’s the claim of some fresh-caught research from Sweden, which found that a fish-laden diet improved the cognitive performance of teenage boys even when a whole slew of other variables were taken into account.  They suggest that something in fish has a strong, positive impact on intelligence – which might just explain why fish-heavy cultures like those in Asia and the Mediterranean seem to do so much better on IQ tests.

The Research

Researchers in Sweden studied how diet affected intelligence scores of teenage boys. They followed the dietary intake of fish in boys from age 15 until age 18, when they take their Swedish Military Conscription mental tests. The boys who ate fish at least once a week scored at least 7% higher than those that didn’t.  Eating fish more than twice a week boosted them up almost 12%.

Surstromming, A Popular Swedish Dish (Flickr: Wrote)

The researchers didn’t just look at fish consumption. They compared a wide range of variables, including ethnicity, location, educational level, well being, and exercise and weight. But even with taking all these variables into account, it was clear that fish consumption had a significant positive association with improved cognitive performance. Regardless of their backgrounds or influences, simply eating fish made them perform better.

Watch this BBC Science short about another experiment relating to Omega-3 consumption and childhood intelligence performed in England – the results speak for themselves, literally. They won’t let us embed the movie unfortunately – just click on the picture below to view it:

BBC Science: Does Omega-3 Help Children Learn?

What’s so great about fish?

The biggest benefit of fish is that they are a rich source of Omega-3 Fatty Acids, which are also common in tofu, nuts and soybean products.  Our diets generally lack Omega-3s.  Research has found that these unsaturated fats have positive effects on everything from heart rhythm to immune function. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration actually approved of a qualified health claim for dietary supplements of omega-3 fatty acids relating them to a reduced risk of heart disease – a stamp of approval not given to most supplements.  Continuing research suggests Omega-3s positively impact arthritis, asthma, lupus, kidney disease, cancer, and even depression.

Not only does fish have Omega-3s, it’s generally high in protein and low in fat.  A 3-ounce cooked serving of most fish and shellfish provides about 20 grams of protein, or about a third of the average daily recommended protein intake.  And not all protein is created equal – fish protein is top notch, containing an abundance of essential amino acids.  Seafood is a great alternative to beef, poultry and pork as a protein source because it tends to be lower in fat and is loaded with the essential meat minerals like iron, zinc and calcium. You can spare yourself even more bad fats and up the good ones by getting your filet grilled with lemon juice and olive oil.

Get Your Diet Swimming

Adding fish and seafood is an easy way to boost your health and your mental performance.  Instead of having the steak, try the grilled salmon instead.  Ideally, you should eat seafood twice a week or more as a source of protein. Think tuna sandwiches for lunch or a catfish filet for dinner.  The best benefits come from fresh fish, so get to know your local seafood markets.  Buying from fishermen supports the local economy and gets you the best prices on top-of-the-barrel health food.  And if you don’t live near the water, don’t panic – there are lots of great, frozen seafoods to choose from.

Wild salmon, yum

If you’re worried about sustainable seafood or environmental impacts, print out your regional Sustainable Seafood Guide from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The yearly guides stay up to date on which fisheries are doing it right and which are destroying their stocks, so you can eat healthy and feel good about it. And, if you’re worried about quality, avoid the fish on the higher end of the food chain. Being on top might make them excellent to eat, but it also makes them more likely to contain environmental toxins like mercury picked up from eating other fish. A nice lowly catfish is environmentally sustainable and less likely to contain high concentrations of toxins.

If you just can’t stand the taste of fish, consider adding an Omega-3 supplement to your diet. While it’s not as good as the ‘reel’ deal, it’s at least a start.  But don’t give up on fish too quickly – there are a lot of varieties out there, and taste ranges.  There are lighter tastes like catfish and tilapia which might appeal to those who find salmon too fishy.  At least try a few different fish before you give up on liking ocean dwellers.  Supplements are rarely, if ever, a good substitute for simply eating healthy foods.  If you truly can’t stomach fish, try tofu or soy-rich products that also contain high levels of Omega-3s.

And for those of you like me who love seafood, research like this is just another excuse to go out and celebrate with a nice fillet.  Not only are you eating healthy, you might just be getting smarter for it.

Åberg, M., Åberg, N., Brisman, J., Sundberg, R., Winkvist, A., & Torén, K. (2009). Fish intake of Swedish male adolescents is a predictor of cognitive performance Acta Paediatrica, 98 (3), 555-560 DOI: 10.1111/j.1651-2227.2008.01103.x