Raw Fish: To Eat or Not to Eat?
"Besides being delicious, one of the main reasons raw fish dishes are so popular is because of the health benefits associated with them."
In today’s episode, Dr. Nancy Lin, PhD holistic nutritionist takes a deeper dive into one of the hottest food trends in the US; eating raw fish such as sushi, sashimi, ceviche, and poke. We’ll talk about everything you need to know so that you can safely enjoy this high protein, omega-3-rich treat. You’ll also learn about the real health benefits of raw fish, dispel some common raw fish myths, review the possible health concerns, and show you how to minimize your risks when eating raw fish. Plus… there will be a delicious poke bowl recipe!
- 3:27: Types of Raw Fish
- 7:53: Popular Dishes
- 12:58: Fun Facts on Raw Foods
- 19:50: Health Benefits of Raw Fish
- 23:58: Potential Issues of Consuming Raw Fish
- 29:34: How Much is Too Much?
- 30:32: Highest Mercury Content Fish
- 32:14: Lowest Mercury Content Fish
- 37:07: Roe
- 39:19: Should We Eat Raw Fish?
- 40:52: Poke Bowl Recipe
- 45:28: Wrap Up
Types of Raw Fish
Let’s kick this off by talking about some of our favorite types of raw fish, such as:
When done right, raw fish can be an amazing combination of freshness, flavor, color, and culture. Some of the most popular raw fish dishes include:
- Sashimi—This is a great Japanese dish that consists of finely sliced raw fish. Sashi means to cut and mi means body, so you’re cutting the body of the fish.
- Sushi—This is a Japanese dish that contains raw fish with cooked vinegared rice and some other dishes like avocado and vegetables. Sushi is just as popular these days as Starbucks or McDonald’s. Sushi shops are popping up in malls, grocery stores, and even at gas stations. Both sushi and sashimi need to be prepared really well because when they’re good they’re great but when they’re bad, your tummy is going to churn and you’ll feel like you have food poisoning. If it’s bad for your health you will know it because you’ll get sick.
- Ceviche—This is a Latin-American dish that is lightly marinated. It typically consists of raw fish, avocados, cilantro onions and whitefish etc.
- Hawaiian Poke—Poke originates from Hawaii. When prepared correctly they are delicious, awesome, and fresh. Hawaiian Poke is usually served over rice. Before 2012, it was really challenging to find Poke anywhere outside of Hawaii. In fact, there were only 67 poke restaurants in the entire United States prior to 2012. Today, seven years later, there are 1,811 poke restaurants outside of Hawaii, with most of them opening in the past two years. Poke restaurants are more popular on the west coast, but the poke craze is rapidly spreading in the South, Midwest and over to the east.
Fun facts on Raw Fish Foods
- Did you know that sushi in Japan was originally a very cheap street food? You could only get sushi out on the streets. After the earthquake of 1923, real estate values declined and sushi cart goers could actually afford brick and mortar restaurants, so they started moving to restaurants. The oldest type of sushi actually tastes like cheese.
- Salmon is technically a white fish. If it’s wild, it gets its orange color from a diet of crustaceans.
- Uni is a really expensive, tiny, brownish-yellow piece of seafood that you buy at sushi restaurants. It has a slimy texture but it’s a delicacy, so people have acquired a taste for it. Uni is the soft part of the sea urchin. The sea urchin is a purple and black, prickly, almost porcupine looking creature. The delicacy is specifically the creature’s genitals.
- Japanese knives are only sharpened on one side. So only the pull of the knife cuts the meat, and cuts it very finely.
- Pickled ginger is the ginger that is served with almost every plate when you buy sushi. It has a slight pink tint to it, and that is the fermented antioxidants. It’s actually really good for your body. Most nonorganic gingers when processed are not pink, so manufacturers add a lot of food coloring to emulate it.
- Seaweed salad is a sea vegetable that is served with sushi. It has a vibrant, natural green color, so this is one of the things you need to check to make sure what you’re buying is organic.
- When you buy takeout sushi, it almost always has a sour taste. This is because as soon as it thaws or reaches room temperature, it starts to oxidize, and that sour taste is the fish starting to degrade. You never want your fish to taste sour in any way, so keep it as fresh as possible. Lemon served with sushi will cut down on that sour taste.
- Originally sushi came with real bamboo leaves or other types of leaves to separate the sushi. These leaves have antibacterial effects. However, commercial, takeouts and sushi restaurants now put plastic leaves on the plates to emulate the effect.
Health Benefits of Raw Fish
Besides being delicious, one of the main reasons raw fish dishes are so popular is because of the health benefits associated with them.
Raw fish is rich in omega-3 fats which has numerous health benefits especially for your heart. It lowers your bad cholesterol which reduces your risk of hypertension and stroke, and improves the cardiovascular system. Raw fish is also loaded with essential vitamins, minerals, and nutrients, including muscle building, high quality protein, iodine, vitamin D and important minerals like magnesium, calcium, selenium, zinc, iodine and iron.
Some types of raw fish are better sources of these nutrients than others and the fatty types of fish, including tuna and salmon, are considered to be among the healthiest and the richest in omega-3 fatty acids. This is pretty essential to support optimal physical and mental health. Our brains are mostly fat, so they need mostly fats like omega-3 to keep them running really efficiently. That’s why we so often recommend consuming lots of good omega-3s including chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp seeds, and omega-3s from fish and avocados.
Omega-3s also help reduce harmful chronic inflammation throughout your body. A great way to get that inflammation out is by taking your Smarter Curcumin. Smarter Curcumin is fast-acting, it fights free radical damage, and it reduces whole-body inflammation rapidly.
Studies also show that eating raw fish has also been linked to improved immune health. It lowers inflammation and reduces the risk of autoimmune diseases and issues. These occur when the immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys healthy body tissues. Some of the common autoimmune symptoms include:
- Achy muscles
- Swelling and redness
- Trouble concentrating
- Numbness and tingling in the hands and the feet
- Hair loss
- Skin rashes in the joints, throughout the body or behind the hair area
Left untreated, autoimmune issues can develop into more serious conditions that include type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, metabolic syndrome, and thyroid issues. If you are dealing with any of these symptoms, please call your healthcare practitioner or your doctor.
Researchers believe that consuming omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D can help lower the risk of developing symptoms related to these dangerous and harmful autoimmune disorders.
Potential Issues of Consuming Raw Fish
While rare, the most common risk of eating raw fish is being exposed to harmful bacteria, parasites, and even tapeworms. That’s why it’s important to know your source of raw seafood. However, this doesn’t happen often. In fact, it’s estimated that less than 3% of domestic raw seafood tests positive for bacteria.
Something most people don’t know about raw fish is that most parasites and bacteria can be easily killed when fish is frozen before consumption. It is advised to make sure the fish that you intend to eat raw has been previously frozen for at least a week to make sure that there are no surviving bacteria or parasites. When buying or ordering raw fish to serve raw, make sure it’s labeled sushi-grade. This means it has to be frozen or it has been frozen in a way that limits the risk of food-borne illnesses. This process involves freezing the fish for a certain amount of time at very low temperatures that you cannot achieve with a home freezer. Health regulations stipulate that seafood that is to be served raw must be frozen in this manner.
Raw fish can also contain high levels of chemical contaminants including methylmercury. Mercury occurs naturally in our environment but it’s also a byproduct of pollution that enters our oceans where it builds up in fish. Consuming too much methylmercury on a regular basis has been linked to some serious health issues including vision problems, memory loss, headaches, and hair loss. If you notice any of these signs and symptoms associated with your high consumption of a certain type of fish, especially ones with high mercury content, then that could be a big red flag.
Being a fatty fish, the tuna used in sushi, sashimi, and poke is often linked to high levels of mercury... but don’t panic! According to the Food and Drug Administration, one week’s consumption of tuna or any raw fish is not going to change the methylmercury levels in your body at all. If you eat a lot one week, then just cut back the next week or two and you’ll be fine. Remember; don’t go to extremes with any food product or anything in life. It’s important to consume everything with moderation and balance.
How Much is Too Much?
While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all recommendation for how much raw fish you should eat, the American Heart Association recommends capping your seafood intake at 12 ounces—that’s two average meals—per week for low mercury varieties, and then less if you’re including types of fish with higher mercury levels. The periodic table name for mercury is Hg.
Fish With the Highest Mercury Content
Following are the fish that have the highest mercury levels, and are the ones you should eat less of if you eat fish frequently. They mostly consist of the big fish, because the big fish eat more of the little fish that contain mercury, and it just builds up in their system. High mercury fish include:
- King mackerel
- Orange roughy
- Sharks (These are very popular in the orients, where many believe it’s good for you)
- Tuna Ahi
Lowest Mercury Content Fish
On the other end of the spectrum, are the fish with low mercury content, which are generally safer to eat. These include:
- White fish
- Catfish – Note: Like crabs and lobsters, these are bottom feeders. Bottom feeders are not as healthy because they eat all the garbage off of the seabed.
Safely eating raw fish really comes down to trusting who is buying, handing, and preparing it for you. So you really want to know and trust the person handling and preparing your fish. You should look for restaurants with a Grade A health inspection rating. Also check out some online reviews and social media reviews as well. Any place worth eating raw fish at all will be happy to describe to you where the fish came from and exactly how they have prepared your fish in order to keep you safe. Take a little bit of time to get to know where your food comes from.
You can also opt for raw seafood options like the crab, oysters, scallops, clam, roe, and things like that which are not high on the mercury food chain list.
You can also look for mackerel, or arctic char, both are raised and harvested in more sustainable ways than other farm-raised fish options.
The other thing you can do is also look at the Environmental Defense Fund Seafood Selector. This is a great way to know what the eco ratings are. If you want to know how good something is for the environment, then you want to check there. It will also show you how good it is for your body. The Environmental Defense Fund is an organization that provides these eco ratings that show which fish are best, which fish are okay, or which fish are worst options to choose in terms of sustainability and environmental impact. They even have a great sushi guide that provides a lot of great info on raw fish options.
These are fish eggs. They are tiny, orange-red balls, that are crunchy and fun to chew. They sometimes come on your sushi and they’re really yummy. Kids love them too. Roe has one of the highest levels of omega-3 contained in any food source, fish or otherwise.
Should We Eat Raw Fish?
It’s up to you! Dr. Nancy has weighed the health risks and concluded that for her, it is a special treat and okay to eat it a few times a month. Nonetheless, it is your choice and you are empowered to make the decision. However, if you are pregnant or have a weakened immune system, then you should avoid eating raw fish. Otherwise when ordering some amazing sashimi or a great poke bowl, the reward outweighs the risks, especially when you eat it once a week or less; it’s healthy, rich in nutrients, fresh and delicious.
Poke Bowl Recipe
Here is a fun poke bowl recipe that you can make at home.
All you have to do is get some salads or rice or half and half of both. Put some white rice in a bowl and mix it with greens. Add some organic seaweed salad and some fresh pickled ginger on the side. You can add scallions, cucumbers, sesame seeds, and dehydrated onions to provide a nice little crunch in there. Add some fresh wasabi root cut up into little chunks, and then add some albacore as well. Add salmon to give it a beautiful orange color together with some tuna. Sprinkle some seaweed mix. Note: a lot of seaweed mixes come with monosodium glutamate (MSG), which has adverse effects on most people’s gut lining. Always try to get organic seaweed mix if you can, and without MSG. Top it off with some avocado and a few more seeds, and voila! This is so colorful, very healthy, and raw.
We spoke about the good and the not-so-good considerations of eating raw fish. Raw fish, and especially sushi, sashimi, and poke, are extremely popular and extremely delicious. They have several great health benefits, including reducing inflammation. Raw fish is also a great source of lean protein, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, and several essential minerals, including magnesium, calcium, selenium, zinc, iodine and iron.
However, be careful when ordering raw fish. If not treated properly or not purchased from a sustainable or environmentally responsible organization, it can contain high levels of bacteria or parasites that can lead to serious health issues including food poisoning. It can also lead to nausea and possibly vomiting. Fortunately, health regulations require that sushi grade fish that is going to be served raw must be frozen in a manner that kills nearly all of the parasites and bacteria, which ensures that your sushi when prepared and handled correctly possesses little risk of causing food-borne illness.
Raw fish contains mercury, which when consumed in large amounts can lead to health issues including vision problems, memory issues, headaches and possible hair loss. The American Heart Association recommends capping your seafood intake for each week at 12 ounces, or about two large meals per week for low mercury varieties, and less if you’re including types of fish with higher mercury levels. Remember, we want to protect our bodies and keep all of the toxins out as much as we can.
There are also a few steps that you can take to minimize the risks associated with eating raw fish. Remember to eat only sushi grade raw fish that has been previously frozen. Remember to find out where your fish came from. A good chef or reliable restaurant should have a close relationship with their suppliers and should be able to tell you when and where your fish was caught, how far it has traveled and how it was handled before being prepared.
Inspect your fish. Checking the fish visually before you eat it is very useful. Touch it. Raw fish has a firm shiny flesh that springs back when pressed; it should not keep the indentation of your finger. You shouldn’t be able to smell a fishy scent at all. Make sure it looks and smells good. Raw fish should display no discoloration. It should have a really beautiful color to it. It should not have darkening or drying around the edges. Also avoid eating raw fish that smells sour, smells like ammonia, or smells overly fishy. If you detect any of those, bail out. That’s a red flag.
Order a great side of kimchi if they have that at your sushi place. The fermented dish of cabbage and carrot daikon is an all natural source of probiotics and keeps up the levels of healthy bacteria in your gut Eating kimchi may not help you be any safer when eating raw fish but it can’t hurt.
The bottom line is that the slight chance of experiencing a health issue should not scare you away from trying sushi, sashimi, or poke. It really is a great practice to have a couple of times a month. It’s delicious and healthy when included as part of a balanced part of your diet. Just make sure that when you’re ordering or buying, it’s from a reliable restaurant or co-op known for safe and delicious raw food options.