For years we’ve been told that fish should be a regular part of our diet. Multiple studies have shown that people who regularly eat fish reduce their chance of dying from heart disease by more than one-third. Other research has linked fish consumption to lowered levels of stroke, depression, Alzheimer’s disease and many other chronic conditions. Most recently, a December 2009 study suggested that the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids primarily found in fish and seafood may help prevent and combat colorectal cancer.
Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, DrPH, FACC, codirector of the Harvard School of Public Health’s Program in Cardiovascular Epidemiology, recommends that people eat at least two servings of fish and seafood per week from a variety of species, especially those with dark, oil-rich meat. These species have the highest levels of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, which improve health by altering gene function and the performance of membrane receptors in cells throughout the body.
Yet, for many health-motivated people, there are both practical and ethical concerns about what kinds of fish to eat. Despite all the health benefits associated with this great source of protein, it’s now widely known that some wild fish contain high levels of mercury and other contaminants and that some farmed fish are infested with parasites and overtreated with antibiotics. We’ve also heard disturbing reports of how overfishing has driven some species to near extinction and radically disturbed ecosystems in the process.
For families who are already careful about buying healthy and sustainably raised meat, dairy products and produce, the challenge of applying these same high standards to the myriad fish and seafood varieties out there — whether farmed or wild-caught — can seem daunting.
The bad news is that the problems that plague the waters and the creatures that live in them are real and very pressing. (For more on overfishing, see “Troubled Waters“.) The good news is that people who are passionate about both our food and our planet are helping consumers choose well — in a way that balances our personal health concerns with those of the planet.
For help making your own wise choices, consult the Marine Stewardship Council Web site (www.msc.org — learn more at left) and check out the charts on the following pages. And take heart: It is still possible to consume fish with a clear conscience and a worry-free mind. You just have to be willing to do your homework first.