Eating small fish whole can boost life expectancy, study finds

Eating small fish whole can prolong life expectancy, a Japanese study finds. Credit: Chinatsu Kasahara.

A new study from Japan has found that eating small fish whole can help reduce the risk of death from all causes and cancer in women.

The research, led by Dr. Chinatsu Kasahara, Associate Professor Takashi Tamura, and Professor Kenji Wakai from Nagoya University, suggests that incorporating small fish into one’s diet could have significant health benefits.

The findings were published in the journal Public Health Nutrition.

In Japan, it is common to eat small fish such as whitebait, Atlantic capelin, Japanese smelt, and small dried sardines.

These fish are often consumed whole, including the head, bones, and organs, which are packed with micronutrients like calcium and vitamin A.

“Previous studies have shown that eating fish is good for health, but not many have focused specifically on small fish,” said Dr. Kasahara.

“I have eaten small fish since I was a child and now give them to my children. This study was important to me personally.”

The research team examined the link between eating small fish and the risk of death among 80,802 Japanese participants, including 34,555 men and 46,247 women aged 35 to 69.

They used a food frequency questionnaire to assess how often participants ate small fish and followed them for about nine years. During this period, there were 2,482 deaths among the participants, with around 60% (1,495 deaths) due to cancer.

One of the key findings was that women who regularly ate small fish had a significantly lower risk of dying from any cause and from cancer.

Specifically, women who ate small fish 1–3 times a month, 1–2 times a week, or 3 or more times a week had a 32%, 28%, and 31% lower risk of all-cause mortality, respectively, compared to those who rarely ate small fish. Their risk of cancer mortality was reduced by 28%, 29%, and 36%, respectively.

Even after accounting for factors such as age, smoking, alcohol consumption, BMI, and intake of various nutrients, the study found that frequent consumption of small fish was linked to a lower risk of death in women.

This suggests that eating small fish could be a simple and effective way to improve health and longevity.

For men, the trend was similar but not statistically significant. The researchers believe this may be due to the smaller number of male participants or other factors not measured in the study, such as portion sizes.

They also noted that the types of cancer causing mortality might differ between men and women, possibly affecting the results.

Dr. Kasahara is optimistic about the study’s implications. “While our findings are based on Japanese people, they could be important for other populations too,” she said. Small fish are a good source of nutrients, especially in developing countries with severe nutrient deficiencies.

In summary, eating small fish whole, including the head, bones, and organs, could be a beneficial dietary practice.

The study highlights the importance of these nutrient-dense foods in promoting health and reducing the risk of death, particularly among women.

Further research is needed to explore these benefits in other populations and understand the underlying mechanisms.

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