Good fish, bad fish

When you stop to consider that most of the earth is covered by water, it’s a wonder that our diets aren’t primarily made up of seafood. But we’re land dwellers, and it’s far easier to chase something on the ground or dig it out of the garden than to rustle up dinner from the ocean. Still, fish are an inherently healthy food source — or were, at least, before we started polluting the world’s oceans, rivers and lakes. Much of our “fresh” fish is now farmed, as well, and can be treated with antibiotics or fed contaminants that aren’t good for us in larger quantities.

So how do we know what is safe to consume, how much, and when it’s good or bad for us?

Fish is a good source of protein and, unlike fatty meat products, it’s not high in saturated fat. Fish also is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids.  Omega-3 fatty acids benefit the heart of healthy people and those at high risk of — or who have — cardiovascular disease.  Research has shown that omega-3 fatty acids decrease risk of arrhythmias (abnormal heartbeats), which can lead to sudden cardiac death. Omega-3 fatty acids also decrease triglyceride levels, slow the growth rate of atherosclerotic plaque and lower blood pressure.

Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, lake trout, sardines and albacore tuna are high in two kinds of omega-3 fatty acids which have demonstrated benefits at reducing heart disease.

That’s all positive. But here’s the negative: Some types of fish may contain high levels of mercury, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), dioxins and other environmental contaminants. Levels of these substances are generally highest in older, larger predatory fish and marine mammals.

The benefits and risks of eating fish vary depending on a person’s stage of life:

  • Children and pregnant women are advised by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to avoid eating those fish with the potential for the highest level of mercury contamination (e.g., shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish); to eat up to 12 ounces (two average meals) per week of a variety of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury (e.g., canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, catfish).
  • For middle-aged and older men and postmenopausal women, the benefits of eating fish far outweigh the potential risks when the amount of fish that are eaten is within the recommendations established by the FDA and Environmental Protection Agency.
  • Eating a variety of fish will help minimize any potentially adverse effects due to environmental pollutants.

Nutritional experts recommend eating fish (particularly fatty fish) at least two times (two servings) a week. Each serving should be approximately 3.5 ounces cooked, or about three-quarters of a cup of flaked fish.  Enjoy fish baked or grilled, not fried.  Choose low-sodium, low-fat seasonings such as spices, herbs, lemon juice and other flavorings in cooking and at the table. 

For many people, tuna is a lunchtime staple. The FDA and EPA continue to recommend that no more than six ounces of fish per week (of your 8 to 12 ounces weekly) should be white (albacore) tuna. Although canned light tuna is lower in mercury, albacore tuna has more of it.

Five of the most commonly eaten fish or shellfish that are low in mercury are shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish.   

Avoid eating shark, swordfish, king Mackerel, or tilefish because they contain high levels of mercury. Also, be careful when buying canned seafood, as cans often are lined with a BPA-plastic coating. Look for seafood packed in shelf-stable, flexible pouches, as this is the environmentally preferable packaging.

Regardless of your age or gender, check local advisories about the safety of fish caught by family and friends in local lakes, rivers and coastal areas. If local advice isn’t available, you should eat six ounces or less of these locally caught fish per week, and children should eat no more than one to three ounces per week. Then avoid eating other fish for the rest of the week.

Potential exposure to some contaminants can be reduced by removing the skin and surface fat from these fish before cooking. Consumers should also check with local and state authorities about types of fish and watersheds that may be contaminated and visit the FDA website for the most up-to-date information on recommendations for specific subgroups of the U.S. population such as children and pregnant women.

Last, but not least, another important consideration when you consume fish should be about environmental sustainability. Some varieties of seafood have been overfished or caught in ways that may cause lasting damage to our oceans and marine life. Here are some basic rules to make smart seafood shopping choices that are good for your health and the health of our oceans.

  • Eat fish that are lower on the food chain – typically, smaller fish are more plentiful and contain less mercury.
  • Know how sustainable your seafood choices are. This link to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guide provides valuable information on which fisheries provide the most sustainable seafood choices, based on health and a variety of other measurements.
  • Buy American. The United States has stricter fishing and farming standards than do other parts of the world.
  • Know how it’s caught. Hook and line is a low-impact method of fishing that does not damage the seafloor and let’s fisherman use intelligently designed traps and throw back unwanted species.
  • Eat Local. You’re usually better off eating the local variety of a particular type of fish instead of its counterpart from across the country or another part of the world, unless that species has been depleted in local waters. Even out of season, the local fish that has been frozen is preferable, since fresh fish must be transported by air, the most energy-intensive method of shipping.
  • Look for the label. The Marine Stewardship Council certifies seafood that is caught or raised in a sustainable, environmentally friendly manner. Items that meet its criteria are marked with a MSC-certified label.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!