Welcome to the 27th post for One Simple Change! If you are new to my blog, OSC is a weekly series that I started in January, 2012. My goal with each post is to share an easy way to improve your health- and your life- holistically. If you’d like to check out everything I’ve talked about so far this year, please visit my One Simple Change archives.

Today I want to focus on the “whys and hows” of choosing healthy fish and seafood.

honey and soy roasted salmon

Before I go on, I want to tell you that researching this topic left me feeling very upset- more like despondent, actually- about how much we’ve messed up the planet. Still, I’ve done my best to distil the information so that it is indeed simple for you to decide what to do about fish and seafood…I’ve also given you some resources throughout the post to find more information. I hope you find it helpful.

Fish has been an important part of the human diet for many thousands of years. Fish is tasty and extremely nutritious, and fish can be an excellent source of protein, vitamin A, vitamin D and healthy fats.

Healthy Fats in Fish (aka omega-3 fatty acids)

If you’re interested in optimal health, these cannot be overlooked. People whose diets are high in omega-3s appear to be less prone to health issues including obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, depression, and cancer. Omega-3 fats are also anti-inflammatory, and they help to promote healthy hair, skin, and nails, as well as proper functioning of the immune system. A deficiency of omega-3 fats is very problematic, yet quite common. Most people- especially those who eat a standard American diet- most likely do not have enough omega-3 fats in their life.

Our bodies cannot make omega-3 fats: they must be obtained from food, and this is why they’re dubbed the “essential fatty acids”. I am devoting space to them them here in this post because omega-3s are plentiful in fatty fish that live in cold water (like salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, anchovies and bluefish). Sardines- small oily fish related to herring- are another great source of omega-3s.

Can you get omega-3s in your diet if you don’t eat fish? Technically, yes. You see there are actually three fatty acids in the omega-3 “family”. These are Alpha Linolenic Acid (aka ALA), Eicosapentanoic Acid (aka EPA), and Docosahexanoic Acid (aka DHA). ALA is found in a variety of foods, and decent amounts can be sourced from plant ingredients such as flax seeds (and flaxseed oil), walnuts (and walnut oil), hemp seeds (and hemp oil), chia seeds, and certain green leafy vegetables (including the “weed” purslane), but ALA appears to have limited value health-wise on its own. The body is able to convert some of the ALA into the more beneficial EPA and DHA but this conversion is enzyme-dependent and is actually not very efficient. So it appears that if you only consume omega-3s in the form of ALA, they might not be doing you much good. This is bad news if you don’t eat any fish.

And what if you do eat fish…should you just load up on the ones that are high in omega-3s?

How I wish the answer was a simple “yes!”…years ago it would have been, for sure.

It’s such a sad fact that nowadays, instead of just happily making a meal out of fish or seafood, we must worry about the following: has the fish/seafood we’d like to eat been exposed to contaminants including mercury? Is it a species that’s been depleted due to overfishing? Is it farmed or wild…and which is better? Oh, and seafood fraud…add that to the list of concerns, as well.

See why this topic makes me depressed? I’ve considered just not eating any fish at all but since omega-3′s are so essential for health, I don’t believe this is the answer. Also, I think it’s really important to support local fisherman, as well as those connected to the fishing industry who are “doing the right thing”, so that the situation with regard to fish and seafood can get better.

The Mercury Problem

Many types of fish now contain harmful levels as a direct result of pollution of waterways from coal fired power plants :( Ingesting high amounts of mercury is very dangerous, as mercury can damage the brain and nervous system. Unborn babies and young children are particularly susceptible to mercury poisoning.

I always refer to the NRDC Mercury Guide when I want to see where a particular fish stands in relation to environmental contaminants, and I compiled the following chart to show you the fish that have been proven to contain the least amount of mercury.

Anchovies Butterfish Catfish
Clam Crab Crawfish/Crayfish
Croaker (Atlantic) Flounder Haddock (Atlantic)
Hake Herring Mackerel (N. Atlantic, Chub)
Mullet Oyster Perch (Ocean)
Plaice Pollock Salmon (Canned)
Salmon (Fresh) Sardine Scallop
Shad (American) Shrimp Sole (Pacific)
Squid (Calamari) Tilapia Trout (Freshwater)
Whitefish Whiting

While the fish listed above are technically safe mercury-wise, keep in mind that eating flounder, haddock, scallops, and shrimp is still problematic because their populations are low due to overfishing.

Lobster, cod, snapper, halibut and tuna* are on the NRDC’s moderate mercury list. The NRDC recommends eating no more than six serving per month of these fish, and it is probably best if they are avoided altogether by pregnant women and children under the age of 4.

*Note that canned light tuna has less mercury than white albacore tuna; white albacore is on the high mercury list along with bluefish, grouper, Spanish mackerel, Chilean sea bass, and yellowfin tuna. Fish in this category should not be eaten more than 3 times per month (children should not eat them more than 1-2 times per month).

As for the least healthy fish/those with the highest mercury count (by the way most of these are also caught using environmentally unsound methods): these are king mackerel, marlin, orange roughy, shark, swordfish, tilefish, and ahi/bigeye tuna. It is best to avoid eating these altogether.

The Overfishing Problem

Some of the low mercury fish and seafood that would otherwise be recommended for their health benefits are no longer considered sustainable. We should avoid eating these for the most part until their populations have had a chance to recover. As I mentioned above, these are flounder, haddock, shrimp, and scallops. To see the rest of the fish and seafood that are in trouble, please visit the NRDC mercury guide, and take note of the red starred items. Blue Ocean.org also has extensive information about sustainable seafood choices.

Wild vs. Farmed Fish

Salmon is my favorite fish because it’s delicious. It’s also high in omega-3 fatty acids, and is thankfully on the “least mercury” list. But I only eat wild salmon. Why? Because farmed salmon are raised in pens, are artificially colored, and may contain toxic levels of industrial chemicals such as PCBs.

I no longer buy Atlantic salmon as it’s nearly impossible to find Atlantic salmon that is wild. At this time, the very best wild salmon comes from Alaska: fish farms have never been allowed there and the water is pristine, so the salmon population is robust. I must say that when I see packaged salmon labeled as wild at the regular grocery store, I am a bit skeptical; I believe the best place to buy wild Alaskan salmon is from a fishmonger that you trust, or from a company that is selling flash-frozen Alaskan salmon (like Vital Choice).

Note that other types of farmed fish, including shrimp and trout, should also be avoided because the fish are fed low quality diets, plus run-off from fish farms contaminates the marine eco-system. You can find wild shrimp and many other fresh and canned wild fish at Vital Choice.

BUT: there are a few exceptions to “eat wild only”. Mussels, clams, oysters and Bay scallops are given the thumbs up as healthy and eco-friendly by the Environmental Defense Fund. While these do come from farms, they are apparently harvested using suspension nets that do not otherwise harm the ocean or its other inhabitants.

As for tilapia: I’ve never liked it because it’s not high in omega-3s and I don’t think it has any taste. Tilapia farming is a huge business and appears to be harming the environment, so I suggest you avoid it, too.

So what fish should you eat?

For unlimited consumption: wild salmon and sardines, for sure…plus any fish or seafood you buy from somewhere like Vital Choice. For moderate consumption: buy local from a trusted source whenever possible. Stick to the fish and seafood that are not on the high mercury list, and which have been deemed sustainable. I suggest downloading a Seafood Watch Pocket Guide from the Monterey Bay Aquarium (they also have a free APP) to help you decide what to eat.

If you avoid fish because you are vegan/vegetarian or if you simply don’t like it (or if you eat fish less than once a week), I think you should take a fish oil supplement to ensure you don’t become deficient in omega-3s. I don’t talk about supplements much but to be honest, taking a fish oil supplement is actually a good idea for most people. But please PLEASE don’t just run out and buy one from the supermarket: it’s really important to consult this list to make sure the company you buy from sells a pure product. Companies I trust include Nordic Naturals, Carlson Labs, and Vital Choice. Please note that fish oil and fish liver oil are not the same thing. Fish liver oil- generally made from cod- is high in vitamin D, which is very important, but fish liver oil does not generally have high amounts of EPA and DHA like fish oil,

Hopefully this was not too long-winded! I know it seems like this was complicated, but the main point I wanted to get across was that you should selectively eat fish and seafood, or you should take an omega-3 supplement. Hopefully you understand why I think this topic is really important, and why I wanted it to be a part of One Simple Change.

So how are you feeling about this? Do you eat fish and seafood or avoid them? Will you do anything differently from now on? I would love to know! ps I’ll be posting a great wild salmon recipe tomorrow, so keep your eyes peeled for that ;)

Fish Recipes from My Archives:

Honey Soy Roasted Salmon
Sardine and Brown Rice Ochazuke
Endive, Kale, and Smoked Salmon Salad with Avocado and Pink Grapefruit
Healthy Tuna Casserole
Hot Smoked Salmon
Black Rice Ochazuke with Crispy Salmon Skin
Thai Style Scallops
Avocado Sardine Sandwich
Salt Cod Chowder with Garlic Aioli
Conch Salad
Asian Ceviche
Tuna Tartine
Brazilian Salmon and Sweet Potato Stew
Spicy Garlic Shrimp with Kale and Quinoa
Clam Chowder
Sushi
Smoked Salmon Chard Roll-Ups
Thai Coconut Soup

More info about healthy fish:

The Natural Resources Defense Council’s Consumer Guide to Eating Fish has reliable information about mercury levels in fish.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. They have downloadable Seafood Pocket Watch Guides for each region of the USA, as well as a guide to best choices in sustainable sushi.
The Environmental Defense Fund’s Seafood Selector is also very comprehensive.
The Blue Ocean Institute has extensive info on ocean-friendly seafood.
The David Suzuki Foundation: A wonderful environmental organization with excellent information about how you can make seafood choices that will help keep the oceans healthy.

Books I consulted while writing this post:

What to Eat
Real Food: What to Eat and Why
The Nutrient Dense Eating Plan: Enjoy a Lifetime of Super Health with This Fundamental Guide to Exceptional Foods
Fish Forever: The Definitive Guide to Understanding, Selecting, and Preparing Healthy, Delicious, and Environmentally Sustainable Seafood

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links to VitalChoice.com and Amazon.com. Please know that I only link to books and other products that I love, and that I make a teeny bit of cash when you purchase anything by way of these links.

 

14 Comments

  1. 1

    Brian @ A Thought For Food — July 24, 2012 @ 10:28 am

    As a pescatarian household, we’ve done our very best to buy fish that are local and sustainable. It’s a challenge though, even in New England. And then there’s the mercury problem. This is a wonderful resource for people to consult. And, as always, beautifully written.

  2. 2

    JenniferA — July 24, 2012 @ 10:43 am

    Excellent post, Winnie! I will definitely be using this as a reference.

  3. 3

    monet — July 24, 2012 @ 12:22 pm

    Ryan and I try to eat fish at least twice a week and it is so good to have this clear and important resource. Thank you for reminding me of why I eat fish and how to do it in a way that sustains these valuable populations.

  4. 4

    Teresa — July 24, 2012 @ 12:54 pm

    As a pescatarian from a traditional fishing village I can sympathize with your discomfort after doing research-it’d be so nice to be able to avoid all of the baggage that comes with industrial fish but ignorance is (thankfully) pretty hard to sustain.
    This post is great and I think I shall link to it as a reference, so that I can come back for refreshers! As I currently live completely landlocked, it’s far too easy to slack off…

  5. 5

    Becca — July 24, 2012 @ 3:43 pm

    What an incredible post.

    Thank you so very much the time and effort that you devoted to this post. It is well presented and researched. I love that several sides of the “healthy fish” debate were presented, including not only the mercury problems (i.e. personal health) but the sustainability problems too (i.e. planetary health). Also, your fish recipe links complete the post; thanks for including them in addition to the other links!

  6. 6

    Luna — July 24, 2012 @ 4:13 pm

    I know we should eat more fish, but I just don’t like the healthy, sustainable ones. I’m one of those rare people who just doesn’t like salmon. I do like the various types of ocean white fish, but those usually don’t have much omega-3. Lake perch and walleye are (I think) decent options around here (Minnesota) on the sustainability side, but as far as I know, they also don’t have much omega-3. Thanks for all of the information though!

  7. 7

    Laura (Tutti Dolci) — July 25, 2012 @ 1:34 am

    Great post, Winnie! Bookmarking this as a reference!

  8. 8

    Carol — July 25, 2012 @ 4:48 pm

    Very much enjoyed this post and have gone back to it several times to reread, as much of what I thought I knew has changed. Spending much of the summer in Cape May, NJ our family has access to great fish markets. With this information we can make a better and educated choice as to what fish we comsume. I too, will be bookmarking this as a reference.

  9. 9

    Hannah — July 25, 2012 @ 8:17 pm

    Love this post – so much information that I have looked at at some point or another, but all organized together and very comprehensively. We always use the Monterrey Bay aquarium guidelines, since we are in the SF Bay Area. One resource that they developed recently is called the Super Green List. It provides a handy cross-referenced list between what is healthy for humans and healthy for the oceans/planet. Similar to what you have done here, but with the resources at their disposal, they update it very frequently in response to changes in the fishing world. Here is a link in case people want to check it out: http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/cr_seafoodwatch/sfw_health.aspx
    Another easy way to know that fish is healthy for the planet is to see that it is MSC certified. The Marine Stewardship Council only allows fish to be certified that meets extremely stringent standards of production.

    Thanks for putting so much energy into this wonderful resource – and what a great list of recipes to boot! :)

  10. 10

    Lynda — July 25, 2012 @ 8:21 pm

    Thanks, Winnie. I know a bit about all of this, but it’s so helpful to have in synthesized in one place.

  11. 11

    Quick and Delicious Seared Wild Salmon | Healthy Green Kitchen — July 26, 2012 @ 8:49 pm

    [...] Fish and Seafood, Gluten-Free, Main Course, Recipes, Simple and Fast Pin It If you read my post about why and how to choose fish wisely, then you know that I think wild Alaskan salmon is a great choice for those who eat [...]

  12. 12

    Paula — July 27, 2012 @ 8:53 am

    Wow, you certainly did your research for this post! Anyone who consumes fish should be using this as their go-to reference. Great information Winnie.

  13. 13

    Kris — August 1, 2012 @ 5:40 pm

    How can a vegan or vegetarian take fish oil supplements? These are people who do not eat animals – and fish oil is derived from fish.

    • Winnie replied: — August 1st, 2012 @ 8:14 pm

      I know many people who call themselves vegetarians who do in fact eat fish. And I also know people who eat a mostly vegan diet but who do supplement with fish oil.