Fish is one of the healthiest foods we can eat. It is an excellent source of protein, it is packed with the anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, and chocked full of many important vitamins and minerals needed to build a healthy body and stronger bones. However, there are some concerns about eating fish. The rising levels of contaminants such as mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in our waterways end up in our fish and can have adverse effects on our health when eaten. The advent of fish farming led to fish being raised in unhealthy environments and fed an unnatural diet that affects the nutrient quality of fish. There is also growing concern about the environmental sustainability of how seafood is caught and produced. That’s why it is important to know where your fish is coming from, which fish provide the healthiest and safest sources of nutrients and which fish to avoid.
Tying all the pieces together, when choosing what fish to dine on select fish that is:
- High in omega-3 fatty acids
- Low in mercury and other contaminants
- Sustainably sourced
With all that in mind, here are my top choices:
- Salmon. Salmon is a fish favorite for many. It is not only high in omega-3 fatty acids, but is also an excellent source of vitamin B12, vitamin D, and selenium. Additionally, it has been found to contain beneficial bioactive peptides. These peptides are protein fragments that can protect joint cartilage, improve insulin sensitivity, and help control inflammation. Most of the salmon consumed in this country is farm-raised. The controversy about eating farmed versus wild salmon is too complex for me to address here. However, the quality of farming of salmon is improving and farmed fish are being fed healthier diets in an effort to improve their nutritional profiles. When choosing salmon, wild salmon should always be your first choice with farmed salmon as a good alternative. When purchasing farm fish, look for the Aquaculture Stewardship Council Certified label which ensures that the fish farms adhere to specific requirements for feed and the clean sea bed. Canned salmon is also a very affordable way to get more salmon into your diet and one of the best sources of non-dairy calcium.
- Atlantic Mackerel. Right up there with the health benefits of salmon is Atlantic mackerel, another fish rich in omega 3 fatty acids, B vitamins, selenium, and vitamin D. Mackerel is also a good source of magnesium, potassium, and zinc. However, don’t confuse Atlantic Mackerel with King Mackerel or Spanish Mackerel which is high in mercury and should be avoided. I often enjoy smoked mackerel on toast with a creamy nut spread as a quick lunch.
- Skipjack Tuna. Most tuna is high in mercury, however, Skipjack tuna tends to be lower in mercury, while still providing many nutritional benefits. Besides being a great source of protein and B vitamins, tuna also has a novel selenium-containing compound called selenoneine. Selenoneine acts as an anti-oxidant and may actually protect against mercury toxicity. Wild Planet offers the first sustainably caught skipjack tuna on the market, perfect for adding a punch of protein and nutrients to your salad.
- Rainbow trout. Rainbow trout is another excellent fish option due to its high omega 3 fatty acid content and low levels of mercury. It is also a rich source of potassium and phosphorus, both important to bone health, as well as several B vitamins and selenium. Rainbow trout are mostly farmed in this country, but using methods that have a minimal environmental impact and the industry follows best practices to minimize disease.
- Sardines. Sardines may not be your first choice of fish, but they provide an abundance of nutrition. They are rich in protein and omega 3 fatty acids, lots of essential vitamins and minerals and are a great source of calcium. I enjoy making a sardine salad, just like you would make a tuna salad, and add it to my lunchtime salad.
Fish to avoid due to the highest levels of contaminants and overfishing
- King Mackerel
- Orange Roughy
- Big Eye Tuna
- Bluefin Tuna
- Atlantic Cod
- Chilean Seabass
Honorable mention: Tilapia is one of the most commonly consumed types of fish in the United States. However, Tilapia’s skewed omega fat profile and reports around questionable farming practices is raising concerns. Unlike the fish listed above that are high in omega 3 fatty acids, Tilapia’s fat profile contains more omega 6 fatty acids and fewer omega 3s. Excess omega-6 fatty acids in our diet can trigger inflammation, as opposed to omega-3 fatty acids which can reduce inflammation. Another problematic issue with tilapia is how it is produced. Reports from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have revealed some concerning details about tilapia farming practices, especially tilapia farmed in China resulting in the presence of antibiotics and high levels of contaminants. For this reason, if you are considering purchasing tilapia, the best sources include fish from the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, Ecuador, and Peru.
When shopping keep an eye out for the following labels:
When purchasing farm fish, look for the Aquaculture Stewardship Council Certified label which ensures that the fish farms adhere to specific requirements for feed and for clean sea bed:
When purchasing fish, look for The Marine Stewardship Council blue sticker which certifies the fish was caught using sustainable fishing practices.
You can also use the handy seafood guide from Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch to find more sustainable choices.
No food is perfect. All food contains varying amounts of contaminants, pesticides, herbicides as well as varying amounts of nutrients. That is why it is best to eat a varied diet to ensure you are not only getting a wide variety of nutrients but also to ensure an excess of any potential contaminants.
is a Physical Therapist,
Nutrition Consultant and
Doctor of Integrative Medicine.
She has been treating women with osteoporosis for over 30 years and is dedicated to helping people achieve
lasting good health and vitality.