As long as it’s not deep-fried, fish small and large are loaded with nutrients that support your health and training efforts. But picking out a swimmer for dinner is no simple task. These days we wonder: ‘Was it farmed or wild-caught? Should I go with fresh or frozen?’ And fears of contaminants make many shy away from eating enough fish. Despite the scary headlines, however, there is no need to spurn wild and farmed seafood in favor of another ho-hum meal of chicken breast. The key is to wade through the murky waters and become better informed to make the best choices for you and the planet. Follow these tips and welcome more ocean life into your kitchen and navigate the seafood counter.
Eat More Seafood, Less Meat
Despite some scary headlines, we can and should still be eating seafood. But most Americans aren’t reaching for fish for dinner often enough. Though consumption of fresh and frozen seafood has seen an uptick recently, the typical American diet contains only about half the recommended level of seafood consumption suggested by the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans—two four-ounce servings each week. This is a shortfall that can have health consequences if you’re stuffing in sausage instead of salmon. One recent study in the journal Circulation involving more than 400,000 men and women found that substituting some of the calories in a diet from red and processed meat with seafood, especially fatty fish, can slash the risk for heart disease by about 20%. Similarly, a separate investigation involving the review of 123 previously published studies found an inverse association between fish intake and cardiovascular disease while red and processed meat was linked to a higher risk for heart woes. Lower intakes of saturated fat and higher consumption of nutrients like omega-3 fats, selenium, and vitamin D are likely a big reason why this dietary swap is a ticker-friendly one. That is as long as you’re not opting for fish and chips too often. What’s more, there is some research to suggest that fish protein may have a greater effect on satiety and overall energy intake compared to beef protein—good news if you’re trying to limit winter weight gain during periods of lower volume training.
Research shows that fish can be fatty in a good way. Sufficient intakes of the marine sourced omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) have been linked to everything from better heart health to improved brain functioning to overall healthier aging. And there appear to be specific benefits of the mega-healthy fats for athletes. Research suggests that higher intakes can lessen exercise-induced muscle stiffness and pain, which advances the idea that omega-3 fatty acids can play a positive role in workout recovery. Further, a new study discovered that people with higher levels of omega-3 fats experienced faster heart rate recovery in response to intense exercise. Why the overarching benefits? Omega-3 fats sneak their way into our cell membranes and, in doing so, improve how chemical reactions occur.
But few people are likely reaping these rewards. A report published in the journal Nutrients determined that the average intake of EPA and DHA in the general population is less than half that recommended by organizations including the National Institutes of Health. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics advises consuming enough fish each week to provide an average of 500 milligrams of the omega-3s EPA and DHA a day, but clearly, most people are taking in a minnow’s worth. The best way to fix this deficiency is to trade in your fish sticks for so-called fatty fish more often. These species include salmon, sardines, anchovy, barramundi, mackerel, sablefish (black cod), herring, smelt, anchovies, rainbow trout, and arctic char. A few brands like Wild Planet offer options for higher omega-3 canned tuna. Yes, you can pop an omega-3 pill daily but just keep in mind that research is very inconsistent concerning the health benefits of supplementation so it’s still best to seek out these fats from their original source.
Start Flexing Your Mussels
It’s time to break up America’s love affair with dodgy imported shrimp for a more sustainable (and nutritious!) shellfish. Many folks consider mussels a restaurant dish—something to order off the menu rather than prepare in their own kitchens. But they’re very budget-friendly and all you need to turn them into a knockout meal are a handful of ingredients and a good pan with a tight-fitting lid to steam them in your liquid of choice. Nutritionally, the poor man’s oyster delivers a nutritional bonanza including heart-healthy omega-3 fats, muscle-building protein, the antioxidant selenium, and record-breaking amounts of vitamin B12. They’re also a standout sustainable star, a great option for those looking to make better seafood choices. When suspended in waterways farmed mussels require no supplemental feed, they filter water to actually make it cleaner and don’t need the chemical stew often administered to farmed shrimp to keep diseases at bay because they are perfectly happy living in cramped quarters.
Stay Informed about Seafood
You’re not alone if a trip to the fishmonger leaves you scratching your head and wanting to jump ship. Will you purchase Atlantic salmon or Sockeye? Should tilapia or cod be for dinner tonight? The most sustainable catch of the day is not always obvious. That’s why it’s a good idea to read up beforehand to learn what your best eco options are. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program and Environmental Defence Fund Seafood Selector can help you net species such as Pacific cod, U.S. farmed catfish, domestic shrimp, and wild salmon that are not being fished to within an inch of their existence or farmed in a way that is especially harsh on the environment. Sadly, this is not a 100% guarantee you’re getting what you are paying for as seafood mislabelling occurs too frequently, including paying cod prices for tilapia and labeling salmon as being wild when in fact it’s farmed. This is a good argument for seeking out a reliable fishmonger that is in touch with where their product is coming from. You can also rest easy when you buy sustainable seafood directly from fishermen through direct-to-consumer operations like Drifters Fish, Sitka Salmon, and Wild Alaskan Company. And seek out brands like Blue Circle, which has several good frozen and smoked fish choices, that clearly outline their fishing methods on their website and don’t appear to be greenwashing. When possible, spend your dollars at retailers including Whole Foods and restaurants that have set higher standards for the seafood they sell. The James Beard Smart Catch program has a growing list of restaurants committed to populating their menus with seafood from sustainably-managed fisheries.
Troll for Canned Fish
For a convenient and cost-effective way to sneak more seafood into your training diet, it’s a good idea to steer your cart towards the canned fish aisle. Some of the most nutrient-dense and sustainable seafood options, including mackerel, sardines, and salmon, are available in the canned format. For instance, canned sardines from brands like King Oscar are a fantastic source of hard-to-get vitamin D, while canned pink and sockeye salmon is almost always sourced from sustainable wild stocks in Alaska. Eat the softened bones and you’ll take in an extra shot of bone-benefiting calcium. Some smaller-scale brands like Wild Planet are dedicated to using ocean-friendly fishing practices such as packing their tins with poll-and-line caught tuna that tastes nothing like chicken of the sea. And as a bonus, the extra bit of sodium can help replenish you after a sweaty workout.
Cast Your Line for Safer Eats
Sadly, fish can be tainted with toxins like mercury and dioxins because the waterways they swim in are. So the seafood counter is a potential source of these contaminants and high exposure rates might be associated with neurological problems as well as increased risk for health conditions like diabetes and heart disease. While it’s believed that the health benefits of eating fish generally outweigh the risk from mercury and other toxins, it’s still a good idea to limit your exposure by making wiser choices. Since larger, longer-living predatory fish tend to have higher concentrations of mercury (the metal bioaccumulates up the food chain), you should consider cutting bait on shark, swordfish, king mackerel, marlin, orange roughy, tilefish, and tuna (Bluefin and Bigeye). Cooking fish has no impact on mercury levels. Species like Atlantic herring and Pacific sardines with shorter lifespans and less bodyweight don’t accumulate much in the way of toxins to help you better stay in your safe mercury zone. Salmon, rainbow trout, halibut, clams, and mussels are examples of other species that carry a lower contaminant risk. Canned “white tuna” is sourced from larger albacore tuna so can soak up more mercury from its environment than the smaller skipjack tuna primarily used in light tuna. The brand Safe Catch actually tests for mercury levels in all of their tuna to bring you a safer product. Eating a variety of seafood as opposed to noshing on just one or two species can also be a good way to limit exposure. In the United States, shrimp, tuna, and salmon make up over half of all the seafood consumed. So it’s time to show rockfish and arctic char some love.
Don’t Toss Back Farmed Seafood
Because of historically bad players like salmon and shrimp, you would think that wild caught would always be the way to go, but that’s not the case. More now than ever there is a new school of fish farmers who are raising better, safer seafood for our dinner plates. Case in point: rainbow trout, striped bass, and catfish farming in the U.S. are strictly regulated and farming methods such as the use of land-based tanks cause fewer environmental woes such as pollution of surrounding waterways. Arctic char, tilapia, and clams are other good performing farmed species. Salmon raised in open-net pens is still mostly a red flag, but seafood watchdogs like those listed above can help you identify more sustainable farmed options. As a general rule of thumb, you want to purchase farmed fish from North America rather than overseas where regulations might be lax. But there can be some exceptions including sustainable Australis Barramundi raised in Vietnamese waters.
Don’t Give Frozen the Cold Shoulder
When it comes to seafood there is no reason to be fresh obsessed. State-of-the-art flash-freezing technology employed shortly after fish has been hauled on board results in little if any loss of quality or nutrition. Frozen fish such as wild salmon can also be more economical and lets you buy it in advance and then use it when desired. You should know that a large amount of the “fresh” fish displayed on ice has been previously frozen for shipping purposes and to aid in killing off parasites. These are then thawed for display. Yet this fish is often more expensive than what you’d find in the freezer section and who wants to pay a defrosting fee?