Fish—the major source of omega-3 fats in our diet—is a healthy protein source that people should include more often. Many health organizations, including the American Heart Association (AHA) and Alzheimer’s Association recommend eating a seafood-rich diet—at least two 4-ounce servings per week—to maintain overall health and prevent chronic disease.
At the same time, environmental experts warn that the world’s supply of fish is threatened due to overfishing and destructive fishing methods, which can have long-lasting effects on our oceans and society. In addition, fish are exposed to possible environmental contaminants, such as mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and dioxins. So, what’s a health conscious eater to do? Keep eating fish! Just choose those that are raised sustainably and are exposed to fewer toxins.
Health benefits outweigh risks of toxins. A body of research links fish intake with optimal health. Ac-cording to the AHA, omega-3s found in fish benefit heart health among healthy people, as well as those at risk for heart disease. Eating omega-3 rich fish can help reduce the risk of arrhythmias, lower levels of triglycer-ides and blood pressure, and slow growth of plaque in the arteries. Fish consumption also has been linked to many other benefits, including protection from inflammation, arthritis, depression, diabetes, and Alz-heimer’s disease.
Even with concerns over exposure to toxins,the benefits in reduced heart disease and cancer deaths are far greater than the risks of eating fish, according to a 2006 Harvard study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. In 2007, the Institute of Medicine reported that concerns about cancer risk from seafood sources are “overrated.” In addition, omega-3s have an important role in fetal brain and eye development, which is why the FDA issued a new guideline in June 2014 calling for pregnant women to eat at least 2–3 servings (8–12 ounces per week) of a variety of lower mercury fish.
It’s easy to avoid fish highest in contaminants, as the four highest sources are relatively unpopular: shark, swordfish, tilefish, and king mackerel. These can be switched for a variety of other fish, including salmon, halibut, and tuna (skipjack, yellowtail or bluefin).
Sustainable seafood choices. Awareness of sustainable seafood choices is promoted by several organizations, including Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch (seafoodwatch.org) and Marine Stewardship Council (msc.org), which offer tools for choosing eco-friendly seafood. Making sustainable seafood choices involves avoiding threatened species, selecting from a wider variety (i.e., instead of cod, try pollack or haddock), choosing smaller species that are lowest on the food chain, and including high-quality farmed fish.
Farm-raised fish. In order to meet food demands, half of all seafood consumed today in the U.S. is farmed. Aquaculture (fish farming) offers a possible solution to saving our oceans, but requires attention to limit the impact it can have on wild habitats, reduce potential contaminants, and place little stress on other wild fish species used as feed. Sustainability standards for aquaculture are continuously being improved; reputable fisheries follow standards established by organizations like Aquaculture Stewardship Council (which provides a logo for food labels) and can receive ratings from Seafood Watch.
—Barbara Ruhs, MS, RDN
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