The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend eating seafood twice a week for optimal health. However, only 1 in 10 Americans actually meet this recommendation.
While it concerns me, this discrepancy does not surprise me. The topic of seafood is multifaceted. Eating fish and shellfish isn't just about nutrition anymore. Sustainability and environmental contaminants come into play, and there are many barriers to consumption, including preparation, cost and preference.
I've broken down the topic into the following categories and have shared my bottom line conclusion. I hope it's what you need to make fish choices that are safe, responsible, affordable, healthful and, most of all, enjoyable!
The Health Benefits
In addition to being a lean source of protein and loaded with vitamins and minerals, fish and shellfish are some of the richest dietary sources of omega-3 fatty acids. We've known for a while that the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA are important for heart health. One study even shows that eating seafood twice a week can reduce heart disease risk by at least 36 percent!
But did you know about the emerging research showing the importance of omega-3's for optimal brain development and cognitive health?
- Eating omega-3's while pregnant is important because these nutrients play an integral role in baby's brain and eye development
- Brain development doesn't stop at birth. Children's brains continue to develop through their late teenage years, making these nutrients important during this time as well
- Omega-3's can also reduce the risk of cognitive decline, Alzheimer's disease and dementia in aging adults
Dietary guidelines recommend getting between 250-500mg of omega-3's per day. The Seafood Nutrition Partnership has put together this fabulous list of omega-3 rich fishes that allows you to make smart choices.
Choose plant-based sources--such as walnuts, flax and chia seeds, and Brussels sprouts--to supplement what you get from seafood.
If you are concerned about the sustainability of our marine fish populations, I am glad--you should be. However, avoiding seafood in it's entirety is unnecessary. It comes down to making the right choices--choosing species that are not in danger of being overfished. So, how do you do that?
- Eat a variety of fish. If we all do that, we won't over consume one species while ignoring others. To get out of your comfort zone of eating the same seafood varieties, ask restaurant servers and fish mongers which species are sustainable and fit the flavor profile you enjoy.
- Be resourceful. There are many resources to help you identify which species of fish are in healthy supply and which may be in danger and, therefore, avoided. Keep handy this list of certified fish to eat, prepared by the Marine Stewardship Council, and you'll be on your way to eating safely and healthfully.
Mercury and Other Contaminants
There are varieties of fish with high mercury levels, but it's important to realize that more varieties than not are safe to eat. Plus, there are things you can do to minimize your risk to a level where the health benefits of eating fish far outweigh the risk.
- Know your lists.
- The fish highest in mercury, which should be avoided and/or limited include: shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish
- The most commonly eaten fish that are low in mercury are shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish
- Eat a variety of fish and shellfish. Eating a variety of seafood minimizes your exposure to mercury, because you aren't eating too much of one variety that may be at higher risk
Barriers to Consumption
Many of the other reasons we aren't eating enough fish are due to perceived barriers, which are easily overcome.
- Cost. Your local fish monger can introduce you to less expensive varieties that you may not be familiar with. And one of the best pieces of advice I can give you: embrace canned and jarred varieties such as tuna, salmon, crab, anchovies, sardines, and more. The nutrition profile is the same as fresh at a fraction of the cost.
- Preparation. Most fish and shellfish can be prepared in less than 15 minutes and it's really easy once you've done it. Recipes abound that will get you familiar with cooking fish. And this is a perfect time to mention canned and jarred varieties again, as their preparation is minimal.
- Preference. Go to your local supermarket and you'll see there are many fish options in different areas of the store. The fish counter offers fresh, but usually there is a refrigerated case close by offering pre-cut, pre-seasoned and sealed options that take just minutes to cook. The freezer case is loaded with everything from kid-friendly fish sticks to frozen shrimp and crab, fish burgers and fish fillets packaged with their very own chef-inspired sauce.
The Bottom Line
Every single expert I've ever heard speak on the topic of fish consumption has said the same thing...when informed choices are made, the health benefits of eating fish far outweigh the risks!