Around 80 percent of Americans don't eat enough fish, according to Harvard Health Publishing. Almost half of us rarely or never eat fish and only one-third eat fish once a week.
FYI, the current guidelines recommend eating at least two 3.5-ounce servings of fish each week, per the American Heart Association (AHA).
So why are we missing the mark on seafood? There are a variety of reasons, such as disliking the taste, not knowing how to prepare it, its cost and potential negative health effects from heavy metals like mercury and other toxins.
There's a valid concern when it comes to mercury — some fish like swordfish, tilefish and shark have higher levels and you should avoid or limit eating these types — but there are plenty of other options that are lower in mercury and are safe to eat, such as sardines, salmon and tilapia, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
Eating more fish, especially when you substitute it for red meat or poultry, can be beneficial for your health and the environment. Consider these benefits of eating fish the next time you make a trip to the grocery store.
1. Fish Contains Vitamin D
About one out of every four Americans isn't getting enough vitamin D, per a July 2019 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. That's where good food sources, and in some cases, supplements come in.
There aren't many food sources of D but fish like salmon, tuna and sardines uniquely contain a good amount of this nutrient, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Swordfish actually tops the list of fish but, again, it's high in mercury, so you don't want to eat it regularly.
A 3-ounce serving of canned tuna (light tuna is the lowest in mercury while white or albacore tuna has more) provides about 40 percent of your vitamin D needs for the day. Vitamin D is important for building strong bones, supporting the immune system and reducing inflammation.
2. It Can Be Packed With Omega-3s
Omega-3 fatty acids are an important nutrient because they're linked to so many functions, like helping form the cell membranes in our eyes and brains, reducing the risk of heart disease and treating depression, according to the NIH.
But when it comes to actually eating our omega-3s, it appears we rely heavily on supplements. Fish oil is one of the most commonly used supplements, per a 2015 National Health Statistics Report. Supplementing is great if you're making a valiant effort and still falling short in a nutrient, but with a supplement, you're missing out on all of the other benefits food has to offer.
In the case of fish, this would include healthy proteins that can support your weight loss goals; and in the case of salmon specifically, you'd be missing out on showing your skin some love. Salmon has an antioxidant called astaxanthin, which has been shown to improve skin in both women and men, per a March 2012 paper in Biochimica Polonica.
3. It's a Heart-Healthy Protein
About 10 to 30 percent of our diet should be made up of protein. The macro plays many roles in how the body functions but it also helps to keep us feeling full, preserve our lean muscle tissue and keep our metabolism up — all helpful factors if you're trying to lose weight — per an April 2012 paper in the British Journal of Nutrition.
But not all proteins are created equal: Eating red meat (processed and unprocessed) and poultry, but not fish, was associated with a slightly increased risk of heart disease, a February 2020 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association of Internal Medicine found. It's worth noting this study was not a clinical trial, so it does not show cause and effect, although the findings are in line with guidelines set by other health organizations.
Some cuts of beef and pork and even chicken and turkey can be higher in saturated fat. This is where fish, aheart-healthy source of protein, comes in. Yes, some fish (like salmon, sardines and herring) are high in fat, but it's the healthy types of fat like mono- and polyunsaturated fats, including omega-3 fatty acids, according to the AHA.
Aside from being naturally low in saturated fat, the omega-3s also help our hearts by helping reduce triglycerides levels, reduce blood pressure and slowing the rate of plaque buildup in our arteries.
4. It Can Be Better for the Planet
Swapping out red meat and poultry for fish can have a positive effect on the environment if done right.
Of course, going completely vegan is best when it comes to taking care of Mother Earth (the second-best is following a plant-based diet), but swapping most land-based proteins like beef and poultry for seafood can impart a smaller carbon footprint on average, as explained in a December 2012 paper in Food Policy.
Within the seafood category, some options are better than others. Smaller fish like herring, mackerel and anchovies are the most climate-friendly because they require less fossil fuel, the major source of emissions for fisheries, a July 2014 study in Fish and Fisheries found. Crustaceans like lobster and crab, however, actually have a higher carbon footprint than beef.
The bottom line: Fish can have a smaller carbon footprint compared to beef and smaller species are especially best. You also want to consider how local the fish is and if it had to travel far to be processed.
Get the Benefits
- Harvard Health: "Fish: Friend or Foe?"
- Food and Drug Administration: "Mercury Levels in Commercial Fish and Shellfish (1990-2012)"
- Food Policy: The Price of Protein: Review of Land Use and Carbon Footprints from Life Cycle Assessments of Animal Food Products and Their Substitutes""
- Fish and Fisheries: "Fuel Consumption of Global Fishing Fleets: Current Understanding and Knowledge Gaps"
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Vitamin D status in the United States, 2011–2014"
- National Institutes of Health: "Vitamin D"
- National Institutes of Health: "Omega-3 Fatty Acids"
- National Health Statistics Report: "Trends in the Use of Complementary Health Approaches Among Adults: United States, 2002–2012"
- Biochimica Polonica: "Cosmetic Benefits of Astaxanthin on Humans Subjects"
- British Journal of Nutrition: "Dietary Protein - Its Role in Satiety, Energetics, Weight Loss and Health"
- Journal of the American Medical Association of Internal Medicine: "Associations of Processed Meat, Unprocessed Red Meat, Poultry, or Fish Intake With Incident Cardiovascular Disease and All-Cause Mortality"
- American Heart Association: "Fish and Omega-3 Fatty Acids"
- AHA: "Eating fish twice a week reduces heart stroke risk"