I love seafood. With the exception of a brief period of veganism, I have consumed fish and shellfish for nearly all of my 45 years. I eat all kinds of seafood prepared in just about every way, including raw, although of course I don't eat the battered "fish and chips" type anymore. (From what I remember, it tasted really good, though!) As a dietitian I advise my patients to consume fish at least twice a week, preferably three times for most. Seafood is low carb, high protein, and loaded with many vital micronutrients. Eating fatty fish like salmon is a great way to get the right amount of omega 3 fats that so many people are deficient in. I've been eating some sort of seafood almost every other day for at least a year, and enjoying every bite.
Recently, however, I read a great Newsweek article that left me thoroughly depressed about our overfished waters.
While I knew that many popular types of fish -- including red snapper, swordfish, and Chilean seabass --- were close to being endangered, I had no idea of the extent of the problem. We're truly in danger of running out of many types of fish if we keep going at our current pace. The changes in marine life populations are creating a huge amount of stress on our delicate ocean ecosystems.
Another issue is the mercury content of seafood. Mercury has profoundly negative effects on the body at toxic levels, including kidney damage, memory impairment, and neurological symptoms such as lack of coordination and pain or loss of sensation of the extremities. Although mercury poisoning is especially of concern for pregnant women, it can occur in anyone who eats a lot of seafood high in mercury. In general, the fish that contain the most mercury are larger varieties like shark, swordfish, orange roughy and, unfortunately for me, Ahi tuna. In addition to mercury, there's cause for concern over fish contaminated by other heavy metals as a result of Japan's nuclear plant damage following the devastating earthquake and tsunami last year.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium site has a number of free downloadable pocket guides to make choosing seafood easier. However, it's not always easy to determine exactly where the fish you're eating came from, and as you can see from the guide, fish such as salmon range from "best choice" to "avoid" based on where they originate and whether they are wild or farmed. Some farmed fish are actually better than fresh-caught, but not salmon. Confusing, isn't it?
How do we choose fish that are both environmentally friendly and healthy? Selecting small fish is a good start. Sardines, herring, shrimp, and most non-farmed salmon are low in mercury, sustainable, and highest in omega 3 fats. Fish that are not as high in omega 3's but still good choices include flounder, sole, squid, farmed tilapia, and farmed trout. All canned salmon is wild-caught. It's something I eat often and recommend to my patients as an inexpensive source of high-quality protein and healthy fat. Sardines and herring are other excellent canned fish choices.
Seafood has a lot of things going for it, but it's important to make the right choices. I still recommend eating fish three times a week but hope to do so in a way that makes sense from both an environmental and health perspective.
If you haven't tried sardines or herring in a while -- or ever -- why not give them a try? I think you'll be surprised how delicious they can be. And if you end up not liking them, I'm willing to bet you can find a grateful cat (or family member) who'd be happy to take them off your hands.
Franziska Spritzler, RD, CDE