Fish are an excellent source of nutrients, and it is important to incorporate them into any healthy diet. When it comes to the question of wild vs. farm-raised, the experts are clear that wild fish are optimal, especially when it comes to carnivorous fish like salmon, tuna and cod as farming these types of fish has the most detrimental environmental impact. Keeping so many fish contained in one area goes against their natural behaviors and means that sick fish, those that would normally die in the wild, end up on our dinner plates. These fish are not eating their natural diet (fish shouldn’t be eating GMO grain!) and are given things like antibiotics to combat disease. There is also the issue of non-native fish escaping from the farms and interfering with the health of local fish. I think of fish farms as the feedlots of the sea (imagine all those fish swimming around in their own waste- gross!) and while there are some small-scale farms that are more sustainable, from an environmental and nutritional standpoint I would absolutely eat wild fish and try to avoid farmed fish completely. Farmed shellfish, like oysters, don’t have as many destructive environmental implications, so I personally will eat farmed shellfish occasionally.
A big concern that people tend to have about consuming fish has to do with mercury intake. Nina Planck helps us understand the dangers:
“The metal mercury is found naturally in the environment. It can combine with carbon to form a toxin called methylmercury…Methylmercury dissolves in water and accumulates up the food chain, which means it’s found in higher concentrations in older, bigger, and more carnivorous fish, and it ends up in your tissues when you eat it. If you stop consuming methylmercury, it eventually clears your body.” (Real Food for Mother and Baby, pg. 22).
Despite some risk, you are better off eating fish than not eating fish.
While one might hope to avoid fish consumption in order to minimize exposure to mercury, particularly pregnant women who are cautioned about the dangers of mercury intake, Planck warns us against ruling out fish. She specifically advises pregnant women, “Not eating fish poses a greater risk to your baby’s brain than eating fish.” The same goes for adults. Fish are so healthy, we should strive to incorporate them into our diets. The goal is simply to be smart about the fish you eat and how often you eat it. This article by Chris Kresser talks about selenium protecting agains mercury toxicity and explains that fish make up 16 of the 25 highest sources of selenium. As with Planck, Kresser agrees that despite some risk, you are better off eating fish than not.
Beyond the most popular types of fish—tuna, salmon, halibut, etc.—there are so many great fish options. For example, sardines are an excellent way to eat fish on a budget. They are low in methylmercury (because they are such a small fish), cheap, and convenient (gotta love that pull top can!), while being loaded with DHA. Fish roe (you can’t get any smaller than that!) is also low in mercury while being high in DHA. Super Nutrition for Babies recommends (for adults and children) that smaller fish, such as anchovies, can be consumed up to 3 times a week, whereas fish like salmon, light tuna, whitefish and scallops just once a week (pg. 139).
When it comes to the question of consumption, just like meat, how we eat fish is just as important as which fish we eat. Going raw is a great option because the heat sensitive omega-3s haven’t been damaged. Ceviche, oysters, and sushi are great way to eat raw fish. In particular, raw oysters are a wonderful way to get zinc, which helps immunity and mental health and is important for fertility—both for men and women.
While most of us are used to buying already-filleted fish, learning to filet on one’s own has a ton of benefits. You can buy the fish whole and make use of the entire animal—bones and head, as well as the meat. Beef and chicken bone broth are now very common but “fish head soup” is also a great option. Nourishing Traditions says, “Broth made from fish carcasses and fish heads is rich in additional substances that nourish the thyroid gland.” (pg. 49) In her book, The Homegrown Paleo Cookbook, Diana Rodgers says that unlike beef or chicken bone broth, fish stock should only be cooked for 30-45 minutes and she cautions against using oily fish like mackerel and salmon as these don’t make a pleasant tasting broth.
Beyond fish, the ocean offers us another amazing bounty. Spirulina and chlorella are types of blue green algae, nutrient-dense forms of bacteria that benefit gut health as well as provide iron, B12 and protein. They also help cleanse the body of heavy metals like arsenic (unfortunately found in drinking water) and the mercury found in fish. Daniel Vitalis says that he takes some chlorella on the days he eats fish. In Eat Dirt, Dr. Axe says that chlorella can “protect the body from radiation exposure” (pg. 102), which would make it a good thing to incorporate when flying. Dr. Axe also advises us to buy “cracked cell wall chlorella,” as it is more easily absorbed. He recommends taking 1 teaspoon of spiralina in smoothies to help eliminate candida and help against sinus problems, or just for overall health, since it’s such a superfood.
Sea vegetables are another great addition to your diet, and, in spite of their name, are actually algae. The most commonly known sea vegetable is nori, the seaweed used to wrap sushi. You can buy nori wrappers and use them to make hand rolls with canned fish, like sardines, for a quick and easy lunch without the need for bread. I also love arame sprinkled on salads with nutritional yeast and olive oil. Dr. Axe gives some more information on why eating sea vegetables is a good idea.
As for fish oil, all are not created equal. I’m a big fan of Green Pastures fermented cod liver oil which is rich in DHA (important for brain health) and is an excellent source of vitamin D, A and K2. I’ve been giving it to my son since he was four months old. While I think of cod liver oil as a “real food,” it is also a supplement and you should talk with your doctor before deciding whether to take it or how much. There is lots of great research on cod liver oil in particular. Check out this post from The Weston A. Price Foundation. Sally Fallon writes that in order for cod liver to be most effective we need:
“Vitamin K from animal fats, especially duck and goose fat, aged cheeses, grass-fed butter and butter oil; plentiful dietary calcium and magnesium; and animal fats to supply arachidonic acid to balance the omega-3 fatty acids. We also know that the large doses recommended in the 1800s can be effective in certain situations over the short term but should not be continued for long periods.”
Chris Masterjohn gives us a great overview when he explains that Weston A. Price,
“Used it in his practice not because the healthy non-modernized populations he studied used it, but because it was a convenient way to increase the fat-soluble vitamin content in the diets of people who needed it. It provides retinol, the physiologically essential form of vitamin A, which can also be obtained from most animal livers, and, in smaller amounts from other animal fats, particularly butter and egg yolks. It provides vitamin D, which can be obtained from sunlight, many fish, and in lesser amounts from terrestrial animal fats, particularly butter and egg yolks. It provides EPA and DHA, of which I am mostly interested in obtaining DHA, and this can also be obtained from fatty fish and, to a lesser extent, from terrestrial animal fats. In general, all these are more available from terrestrial animals raised on grass and in the sunshine than from terrestrial animals raised on grain and in confinement. It is easier to add cod liver oil to an imperfect diet than to perfect the diet, and for many people the most balanced approach to obtain all of these nutrients will be to consume a small amount of cod liver oil while also trying to hit the other dietary bases more often than not, allowing the cod liver oil to relieve the need for dietary perfection.”
- Buy wild seafood whenever possible, but definitely when buying carnivorous fish like salmon
- Eat more fish roe and sardines
- Incorporate raw fish through sushi and ceviche
- Put chlorella and spirulina in your smoothies, especially on days you eat fish
- Use nori paper to make rice-less sushi rolls (or enjoy some organic rice) as a way to eat sea vegetables
- Make fish bone broth. Ask at your local market for “fish wracks” from the fish they’ve filleted and you’ll likely get a good deal.
Tips from my kitchen (and the kitchens of those I admire):
- Vital Choice is a respected online source for home delivery of wild seafood with free shipping on orders over $99.
- Search “seafood watch” at www.montereybayaquarium.com to see a list of what fish to enjoy and which ones to avoid.
- For a great snack, add a dollop of whitefish caviar to the indentation of half an avocado, or make this a meal when paired with sauerkraut, some vegetables and cubes of raw cheese.
- Here is my favorite sardine recipe – a quick and easy lunch on a budget.
- When buying canned salmon, choose a brand that still has the bones as these are a good way to meet calcium needs.
- For ceviche, I particularly like using halibut, which I cut into fairly small cubes and then cover with lime or lemon juice. If you don’t have time to juice limes than I recommend covering the fish (in a mason jar) with apple cider vinegar (but this does make for a very strong flavor). Leave this in the fridge, occasionally giving it a gentle shake, for 24 hours, strain (a nut bag works well for this or just a basic mesh strainer) and then add some cut tomatoes and a little raw cream or sour cream along with some cayenne and salt.
- A fun activity is the San Francisco and San Diego Oyster festivals. Here is some more info on oysters.
- You can spot farmed salmon by noticing it’s light pink color with thick strips of white fat. Avoid!
- Even wild fish can be over-fished so check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch website to see what fish you should be eating in your area
- Similar to Community Supported Agriculture programs (produce delivery programs like Farm Fresh to You), sign up for a Community Supported Fishery program to help support local fisheries.