Creating a Fish-Focused Diet

My family and I are enjoying one last ‘summer’ vacation in the Outer Banks right now, and it has me thinking about seafood.  I was in charge of meal planning for my family’s trip (there are five families here!), and I made sure to include some fish in the menu.  Might as well, since we’re so close to the ocean!

It’s no secret that eating more fish has certain health benefits; populations that eat the most fish tend to have longer lifespans than those who do not.  A recent review of studies found that increased fish consumption lead to lowered risks of stroke, depression and various heart-related diseases, such as coronary heart disease.

While salmon might already be in the regular dinner rotation at your house, there are lots of other fish in the sea.  Ha!  Seafood includes fish, crustaceans (like shrimp and lobster) and mollusks (such as oysters and clams).  

First, seafood is an excellent source of protein.  Adults need approximately .8 grams (g) of protein per kilogram of bodyweight, and very active adults need a bit more.  An easy hack to figure out your protein needs using your bodyweight in pounds is to multiple your weight by .36.  For example, a 140-pound woman needs 50.4 g protein per day (140 x .36 = 50.4).

Tuna has about 8 g of protein per ounce, which is almost the same amount as chicken (9 g).  Tuna is also a very lean meat, and the canned variety is inexpensive and easy to prepare.  Shrimp has about 4 g protein per ounce, and is high in antioxidants.

Secondly, many types of seafood are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are known to lower inflammation in the body.  Health benefits of omega-3s include lowering heart disease, risk of stroke, cardiovascular disease and lessening cognitive decline.  The American Heart Association recommends adults consume 250-500 milligrams of omega-3 per day, which can be achieved by eating about six ounces of fish a week.  Oysters, sardines, mackerel, herring and salmon have high amounts of omega-3s.  If you don’t eat that much, a supplement with EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is recommended.

Additionally, seafood has a lot of other unique nutrients, such as high levels of B12, selenium and zinc.  B12 helps our bodies create red blood cells and maintain energy levels.  Selenium is an antioxidant that helps decrease damage to cells in our bodies, may have a protective effect against some cancers, heart disease and mental decline.  Zinc improves immune function, wound healing and reduces inflammation.

Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also bring up the issue of mercury in some types of seafood and how to avoid ingesting too much.  Shark, tuna and tilefish tend to have the highest levels of mercury.  High levels of mercury in the body can have a negative effect on brain cells, which can lead to decreased motor skills and cognitive decline, as well as increased risk for heart disease.

Because tuna is commonly consumed, it’s important to understand which types have the lowest amounts of mercury.  Light and Skipjack tunas tend to have about a third of the amount of mercury found in Albacore and Yellowfin varieties.  For example, light tuna has about 11 micrograms of mercury in 3 ounces, while albacore has about 30 micrograms in the same amount.  For reference, a 150-pound woman shouldn’t consume more than about 45 micrograms of mercury per week.  All four of these types of tuna can be found in cans at grocery stores, so opt for light and skipjack most often. 

Children and pregnant women are at the highest risk for increased levels of mercury, so those populations should be the most careful about the types and amounts of tuna they are consuming.  While the risk of consuming too much mercury is real, it doesn’t outweigh the nutritional benefits of including seafood in ones’ diet.

One final note: I hope it goes without saying that FRYING your seafood is—nutritionally, at least—not as good as other ways of cooking, such as steaming or grilling.  Save the fried calamari for a special occasion while dining out!

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