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Dear Mark: Dried Sardines, Pullup Alternatives, and Blood Donation for Women

For today’s edition of Dear Mark [1], I’m answering three questions from readers. First concerns an alternative form of a food I’ve always urged people to consume: small dried whole fish. Are the omega-3s still viable after the drying process? Next, pullups are a fantastic exercise that everyone with the ability should perform, but not everyone has access to a pullup bar. What other exercises can you do to approximate, if not altogether replace, the humble pullup? And finally, in previous posts I’ve mentioned the potential health benefits of regular blood donation for men. Does the same apply to women? After all, they already “donate” blood on a regular basis through menstruation. What about post-menopausal women?

Let’s go:

Hello Mr. Sisson,

I live in Japan and have ample access to a wide variety of fish. The problem is that a lot of it is farm-raised, and I want to stick with smaller fish that have fewer heavy metals in them. I can find a lot of dried smaller fish, like infant sardines, with no added ingredients. Just boiled in salt water and dried. And I like eating the whole fish because of the calcium and other nutrients from the bones. My question is — do these dried fish provide any of the beneficial Omega 3 fatty acids that their fresh counterparts do? Thank you.

There’s probably going to be some degradation of the fats, as happens with any form of processing, whether it’s cooking, canning, smoking, even freezing. Let’s look at what happens to the omega-3s in dried, smoked salmon—one of the more studied fish. This should give us a decent idea of how the omega-3s in small dried fish should respond.

A 2009 study [2] found that smoking salmon at 95 degrees Celsius made the fish fats even more oxidatively stable than fresh salmon, with a lower peroxide value, fewer TBARS, and fewer free fatty acids.

Separating a food into its constituent parts increases each part’s susceptibility to degradation. Olive oil is less stable than whole olives, for example. That your dried fish are whole is a huge positive. The omega-3s [3] in whole dried fish are protected by “nature’s packaging.” The salmon from above were filets rather than whole fish, and their omega-3s still remained whole. I’m confident the omega-3s in your dried sardines [4] will be just fine.

But small dried fish without added ingredients are an incredible source of other nutrients, not just the omega-3s. Take whole dried smelt [5], another small fatty fish low on the food chain. They’re full of vitamin B12 [6], iron, magnesium, protein, calcium, and selenium. It’s a great thing to eat, and sardines should be very similar.

Whenever you can eat the whole animal [7], do it. You’re not just eating this piece of tissue or that organ [8] or this cross section of muscle. You’re eating the entire thing. However small it is, eating an entire animal provides a wider range of nutrients. Always say yes to the whole animal, whether it’s a freezer full of dismembered cow [9] or an oyster [10].

I don’t have a pull-up/chin-up bar. Is there anything else I can do to substitute this area of your exercises?

Oh, yes.

Grab a set of gymnastics rings. You can string them up over anything that will hold your weight. Support beam running across your ceiling that’s too high to grab for pullups but reachable with a ladder? Throw the rings up and do pullups [11] on those.

Do bodyweight rows underneath a table. Pullups are incredible, but the real key is pulling. You don’t have to do vertical pulling. Horizontal pulls are just as useful. And I bet you have a table. Just make sure it’s sturdy enough to support your pulling. Put your legs up on a chair to increase the difficulty; keep them on the ground to make it easier.

Fingertip pullups. If you can find a couple inches of ledge overhead, you can do pullups. It won’t be easy. You won’t be able to do as many as you can on a bar. But your fingers will get strong right alongside your lats, biceps, and torso. After a few months of fingertip pullups, standard-issue pullups will be a breeze.

Inverted hand plank. Some folks call this the bicep plank. It’s exactly what it sounds like: get in the plank position [12] with hands flat on the floor, only turn them so that your fingers are pointing toward your feet and the inside of your wrists face in front of you.

Band pulls. Attach the band to a sturdy support about waist height. Bend over at the hips until your torso is parallel to the ground. Clutch the band overhead and pull toward your body. Sort of a sideways pullup.

None of these will totally replace the pullup, though. Do your best to get your hands on a horizontal overhead bar.

Mark! Hi there. I’ll get right to it. I have read that giving blood a couple of times per year is good for the body for a number of reasons. Do you agree? Can you expound on this? Is it the same for women and men since we bleed every month and you guys don’t? Thanks in advance for sharing your wisdom and experience!

Lauren C.

Before menopause, you don’t need to give blood for health reasons. Men have no real way to shed excess iron, but menstruating women do.  You can still donate blood for humanitarian reasons, of course. Just make sure to get regular tests to monitor your iron levels. Anemia is a real thing, and studies [13] indicate that women experience more adverse reactions to blood donation than men.

Once menopause rolls around, all bets are off. You’re no longer shedding iron each month. Like men, you’re accumulating it. Some researchers have proposed. The drop in estrogen gets the most attention and blame for menopause symptoms, but estrogen [14] has a concurrent and inverse relationship to iron in post-menopausal women. As estrogen declines, iron goes up [15]. Is this a problem? Probably:

Menopause increases the storage [16] of iron in skin, likely accelerating its aging and wrinkling, and perhaps responsible for the increased incidence of dermatosis [17].

Elevated iron levels may [18] increase the risk of atherosclerosis and metabolic syndrome in post-menopausal women, but not in pre-menopausal women [19].

Excess iron accelerates bone loss [20] in middle-aged men and post-menopausal women.

I was unable to find any trials testing the health effects of blood donation in post-menopausal women, but it’s quite beneficial for men [21]. Might be worth a shot if your iron levels are elevated.

That’s it for today, folks. Thanks for reading!