Did you know the average American eats less than half the recommended 8 ounces/week? Before I started studying nutrition, I must admit that I ate very little to no fish as well. However, after just my first nutrition class several years ago, I quickly learned how essential this food is to your health and slowly trained myself to eat more fish. And now after living in Seattle for almost 5 years, I totally love fish—well most of them at least! Definitely helps that you can find very fresh fish here. 🙂 So I thought I’d share why fish is so important to our health and what inspired me to start eating more fish.
What are the Health Benefits of Fish?
- Promotes Heart Health. Studies show that just two servings of fish a week can reduce your risk of dying from a heart attack by 30%! This is mainly because of the omega-3 fatty acids it contains which I wrote about in more detail earlier here. Omega-3 fatty acids from fish contain both eicosopentaenoic acid (EPA) and docoshexaenoic acid (DHA) which has been shown to decrease triglyceride levels, blood pressure, and the growth of atherosclerotic plaque, as well as increase HDL (good cholesterol)—all of which are protective against heart disease.
- May Reduce Cancer Risk. Early research suggests that EPA may inhibit growth of certain cancers
- Great source of nutrition. Fish is a filling lean protein that is high in vitamins and minerals such as Vitamin D, Calcium, and Magnesium.
What about Contaminants?
While fish is the BEST source of EPA and DHA in the diet which is what makes fish an essential part of a healthy diet, it’s also a major source of mercury and other potentially toxic environmental contaminants. However, in moderation and with increased knowledge, eating the right amounts and kinds of fish actually can minimize your risk of potential contaminants while receiving the beneficial nutrients they contain. Here’s what you need to know:
- Mercury – Today, most fish contain trace amounts of mercury, but a handful have especially high levels which should be avoided, especially for pregnant women and young children. To avoid fish high in mercury, avoid consuming these fish regularly or at all: tilefish, swordfish, king mackerel, marlin, and shark. The basic rule of thumb is the larger the fish, the longer they’ve lived in the ocean and the more plankton-eating fish containing trace amounts of mercury they’ve consumed leading to higher the levels of mercury. Commonly eaten fish such as shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, Pollock, and catfish are all low in mercury.
- PCBs- Certain rivers and lakes are exposed to this synthetic chemical carcinogen used in many industrial and commercial operations and thus contaminate our fish supply. Look for statewide coastal advisories on PCBs to know whether or not certain fish may contain higher amounts. The good news is that proper cooking methods can reduce your exposure. Since most of the PCBs get stuck on the skin and excess fat, try these tips to reduce PCB’s in your seafood:
- Grilling or broiling is better than frying since it allows fat to drain away which is often were the most PCB’s are found.
- Before cooking, remove the skin and fat from the fish
What are Recommendations for Fish Consumption?
|American Heart Association||3.5 ounces||2 times/week|
|Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics||3 ounces||At least 2 times/week|
|For Pregnant women and young children||Up to 12 ounces||Per week (low mercury fish)|
How to Eat Fish Sustainably?
The other day I went to a great talk by National Geographic Explore in Residence, Dr. Enric Sala. I had heard some of what he talked about before in terms of over fishing but he really helped explain how real the problem of overfishing is and the detrimental effects it’s having on our ocean habitats and the entire food systems and ecosystems. He’s doing a lot of policy and advocacy work to improve the sustainability of how we fish but in the meantime, they’ve compiled a great interactive chart that lays out what we as consumers can do to eat fish that are sustainably caught and reduce demand for fish that are endangered or very unsustainably fished. It also includes information on mercury levels and other toxins. You can view it here.
To keep your exposure to mercury and other toxins low, promote the health of our oceans and marine environments, and still receive the health benefits fish offer, here are the best fish to consume at least 8 ounces a week:
- Wild Alaskan Salmon
- US Farmed Catfish
- Farmed or wild Bass
- US or Central America Farmed Tilapia
- US Farmed Rainbow Trout
- Atlantic Herring
- Pacific Sardines
- Pacific Sole
- US Mahi Mahi
- US Pacific Cod
- US Albacore or Yellowfin Tuna (but high in mercury so eat less than twice a week)
- Alaskan Black Cod (but high in mercury so eat less than twice a week)