Do you eat enough seafood? Eating fish is one of the best things you can do for your health–it's a delicious, healthy source of protein that's bursting with omega-3 fatty acids, which reduce inflammation, improve your brain health, reduce your risk of heart disease, boost your hearing and eyesight, and even increases fertility! And did you know it's not only safe, but recommended, to eat fish while pregnant? Get the full scoop here!
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The most current Dietary Guidelines recommend we eat two, four-ounce servings of fish per week–but if my friends' and family's eating habits are any indication, most Americans aren't having fish for dinner very often.
In fact, nearly 50% of Americans eat fish only occasionally or not at all. (source) Our average fish consumption per person is just 15.5 pounds per year, according to the Department of Agriculture. Compare that to Asians, who average 35 pounds of fish a year. Or even just to American meat consumption, which is 100 pounds per capita.
I suppose it's not that surprising–there's been a lot of controversy around eating fish in recent years.
Reports of contaminated fish farms with toxic PCBs and dioxins, unsustainable fishing practices, high mercury levels, shellfish allergies, and more have, understandably, scared some people away.
And that's before you even consider eating fish during pregnancy (which BTW is not only okay, but actually super important…more on that in a minute).
But the truth is, the potential danger of eating fish is FAR outweighed by the health benefits of eating fish. Take a look:
The Health Benefits of Eating Fish
Health and nutrition experts like the American Heart Association and the American Medical Association have all come to the same conclusion: while avoiding eating fish is one way to avoid mercury or contaminated seafood, it is NOT the wisest choice.
In fact, after reviewing data from the Environmental Protection Agency and elsewhere, Drs. Mozaffarian and Rimm calculated that if 100,000 people ate farmed salmon twice a week for 70 years, the extra PCB intake could potentially cause 24 extra deaths from cancer—but would prevent at least 7,000 deaths from heart disease. (source)
Not only that, but levels of PCBs and dioxins in fish are very low, similar to levels in meats, dairy products, and eggs.
So the risk isn't actually even that high… AND when you consider the health benefits of eating fish, there's no question that it's one of the best things you can do for your health.
Eating fish means providing your body with high-quality protein, selenium and iodine (both of which are super important for thyroid function), fat-soluble vitamin D (fish is one of the few food sources of Vitamin D, a nutrient that most people are deficient in), and perhaps most importantly omega-3 fatty acids.
Fatty fish in particular (that's wild salmon, mackerel, sardines, black cod, anchovies, trout, albacore tuna, and halibut) is perhaps the best source of polyunsaturated fatty acids, some of which are not made by the human body, meaning we HAVE TO get them from food.
“Any fish is better than none, and any fish is better than fried, empty-calorie junk food,” Joe Hibbeln, a researcher with the National Institutes of Health, said in a recent interview with NPR.
Can You Eat Fish While Pregnant?
There are two reasons pregnant women have been told to avoid fish: 1) raw and uncooked fish may contain microorganisms that can harm the fetus and 2) some fish (namely shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish) is high in mercury, which is linked to brain developmental problems.
But ironically, a healthy diet rich in omega-3s is vital during pregnancy for the development of a fetus’s brain and nervous system.
In fact, one 2007 study found that women who consumed fewer than 3-4 servings of seafood each week were significantly more likely to have children with low levels of verbal IQ and problems with fine motor skills, social development, and communication — all signs of delayed brain development. (source)
So the answer, to me, is that women should eat lots of fish during their pregnancy, with the exception of high-mercury species. An easy way to ensure this is to only eat fish that are low in the food chain (most of the fatty fish mentioned above are!).
And with regards to uncooked fish–did you know that prior pregnancy restrictions on raw fish have been lifted, so long as the fish has been frozen at 0 to minus 4 degrees for at least three days to kill any possible parasites? (source)
6 Reasons Why Eating Fish is Good For You
So now that we know pregnant women can eat fish, let's look at those nutrition benefits of eating fish, which far outweigh any risks (pregnant or not).
1. Eating fish reduces inflammation.
By now, you guys know that inflammation is one of America’s most deadly diseases. But the good news is that inflammation is totally reversible!
And thanks to the omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish, eating at least one serving per week can significantly reduce inflammation, and thus inflammatory diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and other auto-immune disorders, like Type 1 Diabetes.
Several studies have also suggested that consuming more oily fish may reduce the frequency and severity of migraines. (source)
2. Eating fish is good for your brain.
Though reducing inflammation by eating fish will improve pretty much any chronic condition, we're going to focus on a few key areas for simplicity's sake. Our brains seem like a pretty good place to start, right?
Studies have shown that people who eat fish every week have more grey matter (this is the functional tissue in your brain that contains the neurons that process information, store memories and control muscles, sensory perception, emotions, speech, decision making, and self-control) in the centers of the brain.
Meaning eating fish is vital for healthy brain function.
But what does this really look like? For starters, eating fish is like taking a natural anti-depressant. Many studies have found that omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial against depression, that people who eat a fish-rich Mediterranean diet are significantly happier and less stressed than those who don't, and that eating fish can significantly increase the effectiveness of antidepressant medications. (source)
Not only that, but eating fish improves your memory–people who eat a fish-rich diet have be found to be 19 percent less likely to experience memory problems in later life, as a lack of omega-3 fatty acids can lower stores of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is linked to working memory. (source)
In fact, many observational studies have shown that people who eat more fish have slower rates of cognitive decline, including neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's.
3. Eating fish is good for your heart.
Given that heart disease and stroke are the leading causes of death among Americans, it's surprising that people aren't eating fish at every meal. Especially considering that eating fish can significantly reduce your risk of stroke, your risk of cardiac death by 36 percent, your risk of death from any cause by 17 percent. (source)
Another study found those who regularly ate 1 or more servings of fish per week had a 15% lower risk of heart disease. (source)
Eating fish can also lower blood pressure and heart rate, improve blood vessel function, and, at higher doses, lower triglycerides
4. Eating fish is good for your bones.
Did you know that other than direct sunlight, it's nearly impossible to get Vitamin D from food…except for eating oily fish, which is one of the best (and only) dietary sources of vitamin D.
Not only is Vitamin D crucial to a healthy thyroid, hormone balance, and digestion, but it's also essential for healthy teeth and bones. In fact, if you suffer from arthritis or swollen, inflamed and aching joints, just one serving of fatty fish could reduce the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, an auto-immune condition tied to inflammation.
And if that weren't enough, eating fish often may boost your skin's immunity to sunlight, and protect against skin cancer. (source)
AND, AND, AND… there is preliminary evidence that eating fatty fish may lead to improved sleep, too. I'm already sleeping like a baby just hearing about how healthy eating fish can be.
5. Eating fish is good for your eyes and ears.
Eating at least one portion of oily fish each week could reduce your risk of age-related macular degeneration, a common cause of blindness, by 60 percent. (source)
And people who eat fish at least twice a week are 20 percent less likely to develop hearing loss. (source)
6. Eating fish can boost fertility.
As if total body wellness wasn't enough, eating fatty fish can also boost sperm count in men, thus improving your chances of conceiving, according to a recent Harvard study.
And once you do conceive, it's just as important during early childhood for your kids to eat fish–it can actually help stave off asthma. (source)
How to Eat More Fish Now!
Alright, surely you're convinced by now to add more fish to your plate, right?
It's so, so good for you, plus fish is delicious and easy to prepare, it's super versatile.
And it's easy (and cheap!) to stock up on when you buy wild-caught seafood in cans or frozen, both of which, when you're buying high-quality fish, will be processed within hours of being caught, making these fish even fresher than the fish labeled “fresh” behind the seafood counter, which is often previously frozen.
My favorite brand of canned fish comes from BELA Brand Seafood, who sells tuna, sardines and mackerel. Stay tuned as I'm going to be sharing three delicious and easy recipes in partnership with Bela over the next three months!
In the meantime, for the complete guide to canned fish, including what to look for when shopping, click here.
I also recommend Whole Foods' Whole Catch frozen seafood for delicious wild Alaskan salmon and cod, and wild-caught shrimp.
Likewise, I always check Seafood Watch to find the most environmentally friendly fish choices.
Photo Credit: Heidi Geldhauser
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