In an ideal world fish would vie for first place on a list of the healthiest foods on the planet.
Fish is satiating and contains high-quality protein with a nice dose of leucine, the most important amino acid for muscle building.
It provides a number of vitamins including B12, D, selenium, and zinc—all in a highly bioavailable form.
But probably what fish is best known for is it’s omega-3 fats, EPA and DHA, which are necessary for everything exercise recovery to optimal brain function.
Unfortunately, despite being a wonder food with abundant variety, fish has come under fire in recent years due to the danger of contamination with everything from mercury to antibiotic resistant bacteria. Additionally, concerns about sustainability have made many people wonder whether eating fish is worth it.
This article will tell you how to avoid the dangers of eating fish so that you reap the benefits and have less of a negative impact on the planet.
Safety Rule #1: Avoid High Mercury Fish—Eat From The Safe List
One of the biggest and most controversial concerns with eating fish is exposure to mercury. Where does this mercury come from?
It is released during electricity production, primarily from coal and smelter plants, and gets into lakes, rivers and oceans. Once mercury gets into the marine food chain, it “accumulates” in the larger predators, which is why you’ll find that the fish with the highest mercury levels are the largest: tuna, shark, mackerel, grouper, and sea bass among others.
Why is mercury exposure dangerous?
Mercury can damage nerves, leading to memory loss, irritability, numbness in the arms and legs, and poor brain function, though other symptoms are also possible. Mercury exposure is particularly dangerous for a developing fetus because it can cross the blood brain barrier and cause neurological problems.
According to the FDA, it’s safe to get up to 7 mcgs of mercury a week for every 22 pounds you weigh. For a 150-pound person that equals around 50 mcg. Tuna is one of the most popular and most contaminated fish out there—4 ounces of canned albacore averages 40 mcg of mercury, whereas canned light tuna comes in closer to 13 mcg.
Safety Rules For Avoiding Mercury
The Blue Ocean Institute provides a great infographic guide for determining which fish are safe to eat. Here’s what the guide recommends.
Highest Mercury—Avoid entirely:
High Mercury—Eat 2 servings or less a month:
Mackerel (Spanish, Gulf)
Sea Bass (Chilean)
Tuna (canned Albacore)
Moderate Mercury—Eat up to 1 serving a week:
Chunk Light Tuna
Low Mercury—Eat 2 to 3 times per week
Seafood—shrimp, mussels, oysters, clams, scallops
Safety Rule #2: Avoid PCBs & Dioxins In Farmed Fish
The food we eat is inundated with pollutants, including pesticide residues, and fat-soluble PCBs and dioxins. Fish accumulate these industrial chemicals from the fishmeal they are fed. High exposure to PCBs and dioxins is linked with increased cancer and heart disease risk.
However, the beneficial nutrients in fish—particularly omega-3 fats EPA and DHA—may outweigh the risks, at least on a population-based scale. In a Harvard University report, researchers calculated that if 100,000 people ate farmed salmon (one of the highest PCB/dioxin-containing fish) twice a week for 70 years, the extra PCB intake could potentially cause 24 extra deaths from cancer, but would prevent at least 7,000 deaths from heart disease.
But, they also found that levels of PCBs and dioxins in fish are comparable to that found in meat, dairy products, and eggs. For the average American, 90 percent of the PCBs and dioxins in the U.S. food supply come form non-seafood sources. Researchers conclude that in the context of the U.S. food supply, the benefits of eating fish outweigh the risks.
This is all well and good, but in an ideal world, wouldn’t you like to avoid cancer and get the benefits of eating fish?
Fortunately, there is a way to do this. One approach is to become a good digestor so that your body readily eliminates waste products—see Rules #5 and 6 below.
In addition, avoid fish with a high toxic load. According to a guide published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the fish at greatest risk for PCB/dioxin buildup is as follows:
Farmed salmon—a 2004 analysis found that farmed salmon from five countries was so polluted that the researchers advised people not to eat it. Norwegian fisheries appear to have cleaned up their act—a 2011 study found that pollution levels fell by half in farmed Norwegian salmon.
Farmed trout & other farmed fish—Any fish fed fishmeal, as trout is, will absorb fat–soluble PCBs and dioxins. Unfortunately we don’t know how big the problem is due to a lack of studies, but its smart to avoid these types in favor in wild caught fish.
Safety Rule #3: Avoid Antibiotics & Other Drugs
We’ve all heard about the danger of overexposure to antibiotics from meat, but it’s becoming just as much of a problem with fish due to the fact that over 80 percent of the fish Americans eat is imported. And antibiotic resistant isn’t the only problem—exposure to malachite greens and other drugs used in seafood production are linked with cancer and heart disease.
Use of many of these drugs are banned from domestic food raised in the U.S., but a 2014 study found that imported fish and seafood had high levels of antibiotics and other banned drugs. For example, catfish from China and Vietnam is on the FDA watch list for illegal residues of malachite green, whereas farmed shrimp from Asia and Ecuador had traces of antibiotics that are banned in the U.S.
Farmed shrimp from China, India, Malaysia, Mexico, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Indonesia
Farmed catfish from China, and Vietnam
Tilapia from China and Taiwan
Wild shrimp caught anywhere other than Mexico or Louisiana
Catfish farmed in the U.S.
Wild salmon and canned wild salmon
Safety Rule #4: Cook Fish At Home—Avoid Processed/Prepared Fish
Safely eating seafood can only happen if you know where it’s coming from. Fortunately, all raw seafood—like the kind you buy at the seafood counter—is required to have a “country of origin label” displayed.
This rule doesn’t go any further—it doesn’t apply to restaurants, sushi, prepared fish at supermarkets, or any processed seafood, such as marinated fish filets, fish sticks, or canned fish.
The one bit of happy news is that canned salmon tends to be wild caught and it has been tested to be very low in mercury. It’s also affordable compared to pricey but delicious wild-caught fresh salmon. If you‘ve been relying on canned tuna, canned salmon is the perfect alternative to reduce your toxic load.
Safety Rule #5: Ensure A Healthy Gut
The digestive system is the body’s primary means of getting key nutrients in and harmful waste products out. A poorly functioning gut won’t eliminate waste products in a timely fashion, which leads to a host of problems including inflammation, damage to healthy intestinal flora, and an increased risk of disease and metabolic problems.
In the case of fish, we’re really concerned with proper removal of harmful compounds like mercury, PCBs, and dioxins. If you’re suffering from digestive issues, reducing your intake of fish and other foods that are likely to be contaminated (non-organic meat and dairy appear to be just as polluted as fish) is a smart move. Indicators of digestive issues include food intolerances, brain fog, or constipation.
You can create a healthy gut with a three-fold process. First, you want to increase your overall intake of foods that contain natural fiber (vegetable, fruits, boiled grains) in order to increase the speed with which stuff moves through the bowel—basically it gets waste out faster.
Second, you want to get a nice load of antioxidants that help the body neutralize free radicals that damage tissue and cause inflammation in the gut. Antioxidant, fiber-rich foods include leafy greens, cruciferous veggies (broccoli and cauliflower), avocado, olives, blueberries, grapes, kiwi, tart cherries, raspberries, blackberries, peppers, pomegranates, and some starches.
The third step is to support the human detoxification process daily. This is so important (and complex) that it gets it’s own rule below.
Safety Rule #6: “Detox Daily”
Many people think of detoxification as something they should do once a year to “cleanse” the body, but in reality, you’d be dead if your body wasn’t detoxing on a daily basis. Every day we’re exposed to heavy metals and other harmful compounds in water, food, and air. The body must eliminate them or they buildup, make us sick, and increase chronic disease risk.
An important step to daily detox is to eat natural chelators. Natural chelators are food or nutritional compounds that attach to mercury and other toxins to help remove them from the body. Fortunately, there are highly effective food-based chelators, which can easily be included in your diet everyday:
Garlic has been shown to reduce organ damage from mercury exposure and has an overall protective effect against heavy metals.
Pectin is a fiber that can improve removal of heavy metals from the body. It is found in fruits and vegetables such as apples, cabbage, beets, grapes and carrots.
Cilantro and parsley contain protective compounds against mercury that helps remove it from water.
The cruciferous vegetables—broccoli, cauliflower, bok choy—are best known in the fitness world for improving metabolism of excess estrogen from the body. By a similar mechanism they aid removal of heavy metals. Cabbage, Brussels sprouts and leafy greens are other sulfur-rich cruciferous veggies to load up on.
Chlorella is a nutrient-rich green algae that binds with heavy metals in the gut, facilitating their removal.
Besides these foods, supplements such as alpha lipoic acid and n-acetyl cysteine are also potent chelators.
Take note that if you think you have mercury or other heavy metal toxicity, you need help from a medical professional experienced in dealing with heavy metal exposure. Simply adding dietary chelators is unlikely to solve the problem.