We’ve all heard that “fish is healthy” and that we should “eat more of it,” but as with many nutritional truths, it’s a lot more complicated than grabbing some fish sticks or salmon steaks and popping ‘em in your mouth.
If you’ve been told to “eat more fish,” you probably have a few follow up questions. What type of fish is the healthiest? Should you go for wild caught or farmed? Are there sustainability factors to consider? For that matter: Why is fish healthy in the first place?
All these questions are fair and sensible. Here are the answers.
Should you eat more fish?
Fish are a great source of protein and healthy fat, especially the fatty acid omega-3. The combination of macronutrients makes fish incredibly nourishing while helping you feel full longer. Omega-3s are great for heart health and actually reduce the risk of heart disease by lowering blood pressure, reducing blood clotting and reducing irregular heartbeats. Research has shown that omega-3s from fish can also support a healthy mood and healthy inflammation levels.
It’s not just omega-3s that make fish healthy, either. Fish are full of vitamin D, vitamin B2, calcium, phosphorus and essential minerals including iron, zinc, iodine, magnesium and potassium.
The short answer is: yes, fish really are nutrient dense, and we could all benefit from eating more of them.
What type of fish should I eat?
As with meats, vegetables and fruits, not all fish are the same. There are so many different types of fish, and this is where it gets complicated. A good rule of thumb is to simply look for fish highest in omega-3 fatty acids; that way, you can take advantage of the health benefits. According to Mayo Clinic, the fish highest in omega-3 fatty acids include:
- Atlantic mackerel
- Lake trout
- Canned, light tuna
That said, we can’t just eat all types of fish with abandon, even those that are high in omega-3s. Why? Because many fish contain mercury.
Should you worry about mercury poisoning?
Mercury is a shiny, silvery metal that occurs naturally on Earth and is harmful to humans in large doses. Overexposure can cause tremors, anxiety, depression, numbness and memory problems. Alice in Wonderland’s Mad Hatter had mercury poisoning, fictionally, of course.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the fish most likely to contain mercury include King mackerel, marlin, orange roughy, shark, swordfish, tilefish, ahi tuna and bigeye tuna. As a general rule, the larger the fish, the more mercury it will contain.
If you’re eating fish frequently, it’s best to stick to low-mercury options like salmon, sardines and anchovies. Crabs, eel, scallops and clams are also low in mercury. This is especially important for children, or if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Nutrition experts generally agree that the benefits of eating fish outweigh the risk of mercury exposure, as long as you stick to low-mercury fish.
What’s the most sustainable type of fish ?
If you’re a Plantie reader, you already know that “healthy for humans” doesn’t always mean healthy for the planet. Sometimes, our efforts to eat well have environmental consequences that we don’t anticipate.
Because wild-caught fish used to be the gold standard for healthy fish eating, we have decimated fish populations. Dragging the bottom of the ocean disrupt coral and other important ecosystems, while nets accidentally catch seals, dolphins and turtles.
What about farmed fish? The practice used to be frowned upon, and for good reason. There have been many reports of large aquaculture farms leaking noxious antibiotics into the water, allowing non-native fish to escape and disrupt local fish populations. Fish farm workers, too, have led strikes over poor treatment and lack of fair pay.
Thankfully, this seems to been changing. If fish farming is done right, it’s actually the most sustainable option. As long as the fish farm doesn’t use chemicals or cause pollution, which can disrupt adjacent ecosystems and animal populations, it’s a great way to get the best of both worlds — a healthy meal that is good for your body and the ocean.
How do you know if a fish is farmed sustainably? Unfortunately, it depends on your location, and the farm itself, so it can get very complicated very quickly. The good news is that there are a ton of resources.
Seafood Watch app and the Environmental Defense Fund’s Seafood Selector all use scientific data from the Monterey Bay Aquarium to help you make smarter fish choices in your area. They take into account complicated factors like harm to local habitats and other species, pollution, local fish populations and more to give the fishery a score of green (which means good), yellow (a “so so” choice), and red (avoid).
What’s the healthiest way to eat fish?
Now that you have everything you need to make the smartest fish choices, let’s talk about what to do in the kitchen. Preparation also matters to maximize health benefits. It’s best to avoid fried fish, opting for baked, steamed or cooked in a pan. Make sure to avoid inflammatory oils like soybean oil, peanut oil, any type of vegetable oil or those that contain hydrogenated oils, such as margarine. This will sabotage your healthy efforts and the effects of beneficial omega-3s. The Mayo Clinic recommends that adults eat at least 8 ounces of omega-3-rich fish each week, which is about two typical servings of fish.
When it comes to healthy fish eating, there are health and environmental factors to consider. Luckily, the world becomes more conscious by the day, and there are plenty of resources for us to make smart choices for our bodies and the planet.