I am always encouraging my clients, friends and family to get more omega-3's in their diet... mainly for their anti-inflammatory benefits. Inflammation underlies every major chronic disease - diabetes, heart disease, autoimmune disorders, and more, including obesity! So we can ALL benefit from more of these powerful fats.
One of the best sources of omega-3 fats are fish. But hold your horses before you reach for that tuna fish sandwich, not all fish are great to eat. The larger the size of the fish and the longer its life, the more toxins it accumulates in its flesh over its lifespan, especially mercury and PCB's (polychlorinated biphenyls).
Mercury is a heavy metal that accumulates in our bodies over time (is not easily excreted) and can become toxic. Mercury toxicity is associated with the following health problems:
According to the U.S. EPA, more than 75,000 babies (as high as 250,000 babies per the NRDC) are born each year with a higher risk of mercury-induced learning disabilities.
TEST YOUR BLOOD LEVEL: You can get your blood mercury level checked in the US to make sure it is under 5.0 mcg/liter.
27% of fish from over 290 streams around the US contain more than the safe mercury limit of 0.5 parts per million (ppm).
33% of fish caught on the New Jersey shore had more than 0.5 ppm
89% of people tested in one study had blood mercury levels higher than the maximum safe limit
Exposure to heavy metals has been linked with conditions involving the brain like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, depression and anxiety.
Polychlorinated biphenyls are highly toxic man-made chemicals that, while banned in the United States in 1977, still pervade our environment to this day.
The EPA classifies PCB's as "probable human carcinogens" and animal studies have found PCBs to damage the circulatory, nervous, immune, endocrine, and digestive systems. Also, infants born to pregnant women exposed to PCB's and other chemicals may lower birth weights, reduce head size, delay muscle development, memory and learning. Yikes. NO THANK YOU.
Safer Fish (according to the Natural Resources Defense Council):
These are the fish I eat regularly and encourage you to as well... about 2-4x/week. I've listed available numbers on mercury ppm for each type.
Anchovies - 0.017 mercury ppm
Haddock (Atlantic) - 0.055 mercury ppm
Herring - - 0.084 mercury ppm
Mackerel (North Atlantic/Chub only) -
Salmon, Wild Alaskan (wild Atlantic salmon is an endangered species so the label is lying if it says this!) - 0.022 mercury ppm
Sardines (my favorite brand is Season... Costco sells them less than anywhere else and in bulk, yay!) - 0.013 mercury ppm
Other seafood choices are also low in mercury and other contaminants (though don't provide as many omega-3's):
Oysters (One of my favorite types of seafood! Oyster Rockefeller anyone? YUM.) - 0.011 mercury ppm
Scallops - 0.003 mercury ppm
Shrimp - 0.001 mercury ppm
FYI - "Organic" labels on fish don't mean much so I don't seek that out. California doesn't even allow "organic" fish to be sold yet!
The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) label ensures a fishery follows healthy management of the fish populations and ecosystems so this identification is more important to me.
Contaminated Fish to Avoid:
Mackerel (King) - 0.73 mercury ppm
Marlin - 0.485 mercury ppm
Pike and Perch
Shark - 0.979 mercury ppm
Swordfish - 0.995 mercury ppm
Tuna (this is the number 1 fish eaten by children and the number 1 source of mercury exposure in the US) - 0.73 mercury ppm (Big eye, yellowfin); 0.128 mercury ppm (canned). If you must eat tuna, canned light tuna contains less mercury than other types.
How to Reduce Your Overall Exposure to Fish Contaminants:
No matter what type of fish you eat, following some simple practices can help keep your exposure to these heavy metals, chemicals and similar toxins as low as possible.
Do not eat fish skin or internal organs (these are places where contaminants tend to concentrate)
Let fish fat drain away when cooking and do not consume
Avoid fried fish (frying keeps the contaminants inside the fish flesh)
Pay attention to "Country of Origin." I will choose American any day over China or Vietnam because of their lack of fishery management, unsafe practices and higher allowed contaminants
I find that canned sardines are the most affordable, most convenient way to eat fish, get my omega-3's and avoid as many contaminants as possible. Win-win-win!!!
But are you at a loss?
Not sure what to do with sardines?
Open the can, drain the excess oil and drown in Tabasco, preferred hot sauce or drizzle dijon mustard then eat!
Open the can, drain the excess oil and use as your protein on your salad
Simply mashed the drained sardines and enjoy on Wasa crackers with a side of fruit or vegetables
Sub your standard tuna fish for this Confetti Sardine Salad (you won't miss the tuna!). My whole family loves this and my kids get this often in their packed lunches. My son likes dippers with this like carrots, celery sticks and thick corn tortilla chips while my daughter typically requests this in sandwich form with a side of avocado and cherry tomatoes.
See my recipe below or access here on my Plan To Eat account to customize ingredients or change serving sizes and your automated grocery list. Signing up is easy, membership is cheap and you can access hundreds of my recipes for your own meal planning! Sign up now (affiliate link).
Local Catch (find a community-supported fishery in your area)
Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), The Smart Seafood Buying Guide
Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)
Should you avoid fish because of mercury? - Healthline
Scudder, B.C., Chasar, L.C., Wentz, D.A., Bauch, N.J., Brigham, M.E., Moran, P.W., and Krabbenhoft, D.P., 2009, Mercury in fish, bed sediment, and water from streams across the United States, 1998–2005: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2009–5109, 74 p.
Burger, J., & Gochfeld, M. (2011). Mercury and selenium levels in 19 species of saltwater fish from New Jersey as a function of species, size, and season. The Science of the total environment, 409(8), 1418–1429. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2010.12.034
Hightower, J. M., & Moore, D. (2003). Mercury levels in high-end consumers of fish. Environmental health perspectives, 111(4), 604–608. doi:10.1289/ehp.5837