Omega-3s and Grilled Salmon: Food for the Heart and Brain

Salmon being marinated with spices for grilling by Arun Shanbhag
Come spring, I can’t wait to fire up the grill and throw some salmon on it. Not only is grilled salmon one of my favorite, salmon is also an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids. These essential fatty acids improve heart health, have anti-inflammatory properties and as recent research informs, improve brain function. Yaay!

Oil extracted from fish is rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Two types of omega-3s in fish are: EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid); the human body does not make either of them. So we need to get it in our diet (eat fish) or take supplements. The third type, ALA (Alpha linolenic acid) is highly concentrated in oils from flaxseed, walnut and canola.

The list of positives attributed to Omega-3s continues to grow. They lower levels of triglycerides – the nasty fat-carrying blobs in the blood. Omega-3s help the ventricles – the two big chambers of the heart, which do most work of driving blood to the body – pump blood steadily and prevent their erratic beating called arrhythmias. Fish oil also reduces inflammation in the heart and helps prevent formation of dangerous clots in the bloodstream.

As a runner, my aggressive training inflames my muscles and soft tissues, manifesting as sore legs. Thus taking fish oil supplements has valuable anti-inflammatory effects even for heathy athletes. Relatedly, fish oil tamps down inflammation associated with arthritis.

Omega-3 fatty acids are preferentially concentrated in nerve cell membranes and play an important role in brain function. DHA facilitates signal transmission across synaptic junctions in the brain. Synapses are junctions between nerve cells and transmission across synapses along with their capacity to change is central to cognitive functions like learning, improving memory and other aspects of acquiring knowledge. In school children, Omega-3 supplements has been shown to improve “school performance.” Even for the elderly over 70 years of age, omega-3 supplements were found to postpone the cognitive decline associated with aging.

Deficiency in omega-3 deficiency is is associated with increased risk of mental disorders including depression, dyslexia, and schizophrenia. tauba tauba!

Conversely, diets high in trans- and saturated-fats adversely affect cognition and neurological function. Thus if fish can be considered brain food, fries and hamburger deserve the monicker: dumb and dumber!

Oily fish rich in omega-3s include salmon, sardines, herring, trout and mackerel. Unfortunately, the mackerel available in the US has higher levels of mercury restricting portions for pregnant and nursing mothers and developing children.

Vegetarians do not despair! Load up on ALA from plant products, which the body converts to EPA and then DHA! Toss a handful of walnuts on your cereal. I sprinkle a spoonful of flaxseed powder (Trader Joe’s) on my cereals and desserts, and we use canola oil for cooking. Soya in its varied forms is another great source of ALA.

Or you can always pop a fish oil capsule. When shopping, compare total EPA and DHA levels. About a gm is plenty! USFDA reports that fish oils are free of mercury and other heavy metal contaminants. Nice! The downside of all this omega-3 craze? Corporations are adding Omega-3s to pasta, breads and even baby foods!

Wouldn’t you rather just eat a nicely grilled filet of Salmon? Here’s a simple recipe we follow regularly.

Marinating Salmon filets

  • Thoroughly wash filets, sprinkle, and rub salt and turmeric powder; leave aside for 15 minutes
  • For the marinade, mix the following to make a thick paste:
    • Red pepper powder, 2 table spoons
    • mince two garlic cloves
    • lemon juice, 1 table spoon
    • salt to taste


  • Wash the salt and turmeric off the fish
  • Apply paste and marinade for 45 minutes
  • Wrap each filet in a piece of aluminum foil completely; even fold the edges
  • For the eco-conscious, if available you could use a banana or haldi leaf for added flavor
  • Salmon being marinated with spices for grilling by Arun Shanbhag

  • Place on the grill with skin-side UP; grill for about 7-10 minutes
  • Salmon being marinated with spices for grilling by Arun Shanbhag

  • Turn over, peel back foil and allow simmering juices to dry
  • Salmon being marinated with spices for grilling by Arun Shanbhag

  • After about 7 minutes, remove from grill; I like my salmon moist!
  • Squeeze a few drops of fresh lime
  • Use a fork to gently remove the fish, leaving the skin stuck to the foil
  • We usually start with red wine, and accompany the salmon with some grilled vegetables (zucchini, mushrooms, asparagus) and some rice pulao!
  • To your health: heart and mind!

Salmon being marinated with spices for grilling by Arun Shanbhag

Select References:

  • Fish and Fish Oil, Harvard Heart Letter, July 2008
  • Food for Thought, Economist, July 19, 2008
  • Fish and Omega-3 Fatty Acids, American Heart Assn
  • Greenwood & Winocur, High-fat diets, insulin resistance and declining cognitive function, Neurobiol Aging (2005)
  • van Gelder et al, Fish consumption, n‑3 fatty acids, and subsequent 5‑y cognitive decline in elderly men, Am J Clin Nutr (2007)
  • Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, Brain Foods: The effects of nutrients on brain function, Nature Reviews, Neuroscience (2008); PDF

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