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Ahoy Matey! What Are the Healthiest Fish to Eat?

August 18, 2019

"Let’s now talk about what types of fish are the healthiest to eat, so you can reap the utmost health benefits."

There has been a lot of talk in recent years surrounding fish. Is it healthy? Is it poisonous? If you listen to enough of it you might just throw up your hands and stop eating fish altogether. On today’s show with Dr. Nancy Lin, PhD, we’re going to cut through the madness and discuss what’s okay and not okay when it comes to eating fish. We’ll discuss how much fish is okay to eat and how often, what types are the healthiest, what to look for when buying fresh fish, and you’ll even get a few of Dr. Nancy’s favorite aquatic recipes! 

Video Highlights

  • 05:26: How Often is it Okay to Eat Fish?
  • 07:35: Health Benefits Associated with Fish
  • 14:43: Fish and Mercury
  • 17:18: What Causes the Mercury Issue
  • 20:45: Healthiest Fish to Eat
  • 23:44: Grilled salmon recipe
  • 36:54: Grilled Oysters Recipe
  • 44:04: Shrimp Curry Recipe
  • 56:12: How to make sure you are buying fresh fish
  • 59:48: Wrap-up

How Often is it Okay to Eat Fish?

It’s recommended that we eat 12 ounces of fish each week, which translates to about 2 or 3 meals per week. One of those portions should include an oily fish such as salmon, trout, or mackerel. 

Health Benefits Associated with Fish

So now that’s what is recommended for a healthy diet by the experts, but is more than 12 ounces per week okay? Because fish is so incredibly good for you, many people would like to eat more, especially if they live on the coast. Most fish provide an excellent source of:

  • Protein
  • Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Selenium
  • Zinc
  • Copper

Plus, it’s low in saturated fat, which is good for your heart, and certain fish can provide a good deal of vitamin D.

Vitamin D

In fact, let’s talk about fish and Vitamin D for a moment. You might be aware that getting enough vitamin D can prove challenging, especially if you don’t live in super sunny parts of the country for parts of the year. But did you know that almost half of Americans are vitamin D deficient? And one of the best food sources of vitamin D is fish. It’s true! Certain types of fattier fish, like salmon, are high in Vitamin D. Having adequate Vitamin D levels is important to your mood. But fish can do more than that when it comes to mental health. 

Mental Health

Did you know that eating fish can also help with alleviating symptoms associated with depression and bipolar disorder? 

This is believed to be partly due to the huge amount of omega-3 fatty acids found in fish. Not only has fish been found to help ward off mental disorders, but the omega-3s have also been shown to help boost the effectiveness of antidepressants. And studies show that eating fish can also help you better navigate the daily stresses in your life, again, courtesy of those omega-3s. 

Combating Asthma

Did you also know that eating fish helps with asthma? 

This is significantly true for children. Asthma is chronic inflammation of the airways and 1 in 12 people are currently affected by it. But those omega-3s found in fish have been found to reduce the risk of getting asthma as a child.  

Omega-3 fatty acids are quite the powerhouse nutrient! 

Brain Health

They also are a major player in development — especially the development of the eyes and brain — which is why it’s important for pregnant women to make sure their getting enough omega-3s in their diet. However, this is where a lot of the controversy surrounding the safety of eating fish comes in. Pregnant women should avoid eating raw fish like sushi because it may contain microorganisms that could prove harmful to their babies. Pregnant women should also focus on only eating fish with a low mercury content and they should not eat more than the recommended 12 ounces per week. 

On the other end of the development spectrum, did you know eating fish may help increase cognitive function and slow down mental decline? Studies have shown that people who eat more fish actually have more gray matter in the parts of the brain that control emotion and memory. Isn’t that interesting?  

Fish and Mercury

Mercury is a heavy metal that naturally occurs in water, as well as in the earth and air. The water, however, is where it has become one of the biggest problems because small fish and shellfish absorb it due to pollution in our water systems. From there, the organic form of mercury, called methylmercury becomes concentrated within fish and shellfish bodies where it can become severely toxic, leading to a number of health issues, including:

  • Loss of fine motor skills
  • Weakened muscles
  • Speech, hearing, and peripheral vision impairment
  • Memory loss
  • Loss of coordination and dexterity
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Tingling sensation in the legs and arms

Too much mercury has also been linked to depression, anxiety, and Alzheimer’s — three things we just said eating fish can help prevent. 

Quite a complicated situation!

What Causes the Mercury Issue

The problem derives from a process called bioaccumulation. Sea plants and algae absorb the mercury found in the ocean. Small fish eat the sea vegetation and then big fish eat the smaller fish. The levels of mercury bioaccumulate in the big fish because they cannot get rid of the mercury very easily. That is why big fish like sharks, golden snapper, swordfish, king marlin, and certain kinds of tuna have the highest levels of mercury. 

These types of fish should be avoided by at-risk populations, such as pregnant women, children, and those who are prone to depression and anxiety.

The level of mercury we should have in our systems is 5 micrograms per liter. One study discovered that, out of 89 people tested, 90% had levels higher than the recommended amount. Some of those people had 15 times the safe level of mercury coursing through their veins! 

So let’s now talk about what types of fish are the healthiest to eat, so you can reap the utmost health benefits and avoid consuming potentially toxic levels of mercury. 

Healthiest Fish to Eat

Salmon

Wild-caught salmon is #1 on our list of best fish to eat, and it’s delicious! It’s high in vitamin D, as well as calcium and omega-3s. Farm-raised salmon has been proven to contain more contaminants than wild-caught, so avoid it as much as possible. 

Most wild salmon is either Alaskan or from the Pacific Northwest. Given a choice, pick Alaskan because the populations are not as depleted, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. And if you see Atlantic salmon on the menu, avoid that too. Wild salmon populations are nearly extinct in the Atlantic. Try this delicious grilled salmon recipe for your next fish meal!

Grilled salmon recipe

Here’s what you’ll need for the glaze:

  • 1/3 cup pure maple syrup
  • 3 tablespoons dried mustard
  • 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
  • ½ teaspoon fresh thyme, finely chopped 
  • Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

For the salmon, you’ll need:

  • 4 6-ounce wild salmon fillets with the skin on
  • Avocado or olive oil for grilling
  • Salt and fresh ground black pepper

Heat your indoor or outdoor grill to between 375 to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. 

While the grill is heating, add all the glaze ingredients to an oven safe frying pan and whisk to combine. Once the grill is heated, place the pan on the grill and bring the glaze just to a boil.

Remove and set aside.

Pat the salmon fillets dry with a paper towel and brush each side with avocado or olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.

Oil your grill grates and place the salmon on the grill, skin side down. Allow to cook just until grill marks begin to appear — about 2 or 3 minutes. You don’t want the salmon to char. Flip the fillets and brush some of the glaze on the salmon skin. Cover the grill and cook for 2 to 4 minutes more. Serve immediately with the glaze on the side.   

Anchovies

Anchovies continually show up on our list of the healthiest foods to eat, but they’re often not very popular.

They’re bitter, salty, and have a very intense fish taste to them, which makes them an unattractive fish choice for many. But they’re so good for you and so fun to cook with, you need to try them! They’ve got tons of omega-3s, vitamin A, which is great for eye health, potassium, niacin, iron, vitamin E, and calcium.

Here’s a few ways to sneak them into your diet and make them more palatable:

  • Chop them up in a food processor and add them to olive tapenade or salsa verde.
  • Add minced anchovies to Caesar salad dressing.
  • Add them to ghee and make an incredibly savory butter you can add to meat or fish.
  • Use them in oil-based marinades. 

Oysters

Oysters are wonderful for mood and combatting depression! One 3.5-ounce serving of oysters has 7 grams of protein and is loaded with vitamin B12, zinc, copper, and iron. In fact you can get 100% of your necessary daily dose of vitamin B12 in one serving, which keeps the nervous system functioning properly and regulating metabolism. Zinc plays a vital role in immunity, while copper helps with making red blood cells, and iron fights fatigue and makes hemoglobin that carries oxygen throughout the body.

It’s important to point out that even though many people love to eat raw oysters, you can get really, really sick from eating them raw or undercooked. This is caused by a bacteria infection caused by the vibrio bacteria. It can result in severe vomiting and diarrhea — it’s not worth it! And don’t buy into the myth that eating raw oysters with hot sauce or while drinking alcohol kills the bacteria — it doesn’t, not even on bit. However, if the oysters are cooked thoroughly, the Vibrio bacteria is destroyed and there is no risk of infection.

Grilled Oysters Recipe

Lay your oysters out evenly on a roasting dish or a grill safe sheet pan that's filled with a little bit of water. Set your burner to medium-high heat, cover your grill, and let cook for 5-10 minutes. Oysters are done when their shells open. Discard any oysters that didn't open during the cooking process.  Serve these with grilled lemons and a sprinkle of sea salt — delicious and safe!

Shrimp

Shrimp are really nutritious, but they are also surrounded by a lot of controversy, for a few reasons: one involving farm-raised versus wild sourced shrimp, and another being the fact that it is high in cholesterol. So let’s break this down.

First, the good: shrimp is low in calories, providing only 84 calories in a 3-ounce serving, and does not contain any carbs. Approximately 90% of the calories in shrimp come from protein, and the rest come from healthy fats.

What tends to be overlooked is the fact that a serving of shrimp contains over 20 different vitamins and minerals, including 50% of your daily needs for selenium, a mineral that may help reduce inflammation and promote heart health.

Shrimp is also one of the best food sources of iodine, an important mineral that many people are deficient in. Iodine is required for proper thyroid function and brain health. It’s also a great source of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. In addition, shrimp is rich in astaxanthin — a powerful antioxidant, which has a variety of health benefits.

Astaxanthin is actually from the algae, which is consumed by shrimp. This antioxidant is actually responsible for the reddish color of shrimp. Astaxanthin helps to protect against inflammation by preventing free radicals from damaging your cells. Many studies have demonstrated that astaxanthin may help strengthen arteries, which may reduce the risk of heart attacks. And it may even help prevent damage to your brain cells, which often leads to memory loss and neurodegenerative diseases.

On the other hand, shrimp (especially the farm-raised shrimp) gets a little bit of a black eye, especially when it comes to nutritional value and especially cholesterol levels; 

A 3-ounce serving contains 166 mg of cholesterol. That’s almost 85% more than the amount of cholesterol in other types of seafood, like tuna

Many people fear foods that are high in cholesterol due to the belief that they increase the cholesterol in your blood, and thus promote heart disease. However, research shows this may not be the case for most people, as only a quarter of the population is sensitive to dietary cholesterol. For the rest, dietary cholesterol may only have a small impact on blood cholesterol levels 

This is because most of the cholesterol in your blood is produced by your liver, and when you eat foods high in cholesterol, your liver produces less of it.

So, out recommendation is that if you have high cholesterol and are worried about the amount of cholesterol in shrimp, avoid it — or at the very least, only eat it once in a great while. Otherwise, enjoy it like you would any other seafood. Just make sure it’s wild and not farm raised!

Shrimp Curry Recipe

This is a quick and easy recipe you can make to eat on its own, or add it to stir-fry or serve over brown rice.

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • 1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tbsp Thai red curry paste
  • 2 tbsp diced fresh ginger
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 1 tbsp unsweetened coconut cream (or thai coconut shrimp bone broth, which you can buy)
  • 1 lbs of wild-caught shrimp, peeled 

To make the curry, heat the olive oil in a skillet. Add the red curry paste and sir for a few seconds to combine before adding the garlic and the shallot. Continue to stir and cook until the garlic and shallot become fragrant. Add the shrimp, cover with the curry paste, and cook until the shrimp become pink, give it a good 3 minutes. Fold in the coconut cream, stir to combine, and allow the mixture to come to a gentle boil. Cook until the sauce thickens — about 5 minutes more. Top with some fresh cilantro or your favorite herbs and enjoy!

Trout

Rainbow trout is an excellent fish to introduce into your life if you haven’t already. In the United States, there are extremely strict regulations placed upon trout farming, making them one of the safest fish you can eat. On top of that, they’re one of the healthiest! A 3.5-ounce serving of Rainbow trout contains almost 20 grams of protein. That’s an excellent source of lean protein.

Tuna

Tuna is a tricky one. As a healthy fish option, it really comes down to what type of tuna you're eating. Ahi and yellowfin tend to be high in mercury. Bluefin is a low-mercury, healthy choice, but it’s way overfished so it’s best to avoid it. Skipjack is the healthiest, safest, and most ethical choice when consuming tuna. If you’re a fan of canned tuna, go for the light variety over Albacore, which has higher concentrations of mercury.

Like trout, tuna is high in protein and low in calories, making it an excellent lean protein to eat. It’s also high in omega-3s, potassium, and phosphorous.

Honorable mentions

Honorable mentions go to mackerel, snapper, scallops, squid, and haddock. They are also healthy options that have a low mercury content. 

Halibut did not make the list because it’s still considered to be overfished and depending on where it’s from is considered high in mercury too. However Pacific Halibut is now thought to be more safe to consume and with sustainable fishing practices, we’ll just have to see.

How to make sure you are buying fresh fish

If you’re new to fresh fish or not used to buying it, it can actually be intimidating, especially if you don’t know the right questions to ask! First things first, don’t be afraid to ask the fishmonger (that’s the guy behind the fish counter) the tough questions:

  • Is the fish fresh?
  • Is it farmed or wild?
  • What country did this fish come from? As an FYI, some countries such as China, Thailand, and Vietnam, can often have relatively low standards for raising and handling seafood
  • What’s the best way to cook this?

Any fishmonger who is a professional will be able to answer these questions without hesitation — and if they can’t, you’ll want to find another fish market. Finding a reliable fishmonger is challenging, but few things can be more helpful to ensure you are getting the best quality seafood for you and your family! 

In some parts of the U.S. there are plenty of fish markets and really quality fresh fish options, but that’s not the case for everyone. Fortunately, markets and grocery stores, especially stores like Whole Foods, have really focused on delivering quality fresh seafood.  Even if you have “a fish guy” or a great fish market, it always helps to know how to tell if the fish you are about to buy is fresh — here’s how you can tell:

  • Only shop at reliable markets and always ask what is the freshest or what is the “catch of the day”
  • Look for firm, shiny flesh — it should literally bounce back when touched.
  • Do the “Sniff the Fish” test — a fresh fish should not smell fishy, but should smell like the ocean.
  • Check the eyes and gills — if the head is on, fresh fish should have clear eyes; no cloudiness should be present. The gills are also a sign of how fresh a fish is; it should be bright pink/red and wet, not slimy or dry.
  • Fresh fish should always be moist and without change of color visible throughout the fish.
  • Also, look for flesh separation and gaps in the meat, if it appears to be separating from itself  it's not fresh — don’t buy it!

Wrap-Up 

Today’s episode was all about the health and safety of the fish we eat. Here’s a recap:

  • Fish is a great lean protein source — 1 serving of skipjack tuna and rainbow trout contain 20 grams of protein in a single, 3.5-ounce serving. 
  • Fish is also an excellent source of zinc, iron, calcium, magnesium, vitamin D and vitamin B12. 
  • Certain types of fish, unfortunately, contain high levels of mercury due to contamination in our water systems. It’s important to either do your research to determine the toxicity levels of the water in which your fish was caught, or avoid common culprits like shark and swordfish altogether. Typically, the bigger the fish, the higher the mercury content.
  • Healthy fish options include rainbow trout, wild-caught salmon, oysters, anchovies, shrimp, and scallops. 
  • Eating 12 ounces of fish per week, which is 2 or 3 servings, can help reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, and inflammation, as well as help prevent asthma in children. It can also improve nervous system function, memory, overall brain function, and eye health.

If you found it helpful, give me a thumbs up and share it with your friends and family, and don’t forget to try these delicious fish recipes next time you’re grilling out!

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