The Benefits of Eating Fish

Fish is one of those foods that people seem to either love or loathe. Though it seems more Americans are loving it these days — we each ate 15.5 pounds of fish and shellfish in 2015 compared with 12 pounds in 1970 — we’re still eating less fish than nutrition experts recommend.

So why aren’t we eating more fish? And why should we eat fish? What’s in it, nutritionally speaking? What kind is best? Let’s dive right into what you need to know about eating fish.

What Are the Benefits of Eating Fish?

There are plenty of health benefits of eating fish, shellfish, and seafood, says Krista Maguire, R.D., C.S.S.D., and nutrition manager at Openfit. And just what exactly are the benefits of eating fish, you ask? “Fish is a great source of protein, vitamin D, and essential fatty acids (found in the oilier fish),” she says.

“Protein can help build and repair muscle, and we are seeing more and more health benefits of vitamin D — one that we already know of is bone health,” says Maguire. She also touts the omega-3 fatty acid content of fish for supporting brain health.

That said, there are plenty of other good sources of protein, too. So is fish better for you than other proteins? “There’s really no black and white answer to this question,” says Maguire. “Just like all other foods, it’s good to get a wide variety of each food group. For example, other animal proteins may be higher in other nutrients that are also beneficial.”

Maguire uses iron, an essential mineral that supports red blood cell production, as an example. A 3-ounce portion of wild Atlantic salmon, for example, would have far less iron than the same amount of lean beef. And, other proteins “may be lower in less-than-desired components of certain fish, like mercury,” she adds. “It’s always good to get a wide variety of protein sources, including vegetarian options.”

Curious about which fish we are eating most often? In 2010, Americans were consuming 4.1 pounds of shrimp annually, followed closely by canned tuna (2.8 pounds), salmon (1.84 pounds), and tilapia (1.34 pounds).

How Does Fish Support Heart Health?

Fish is often included on heart-healthy menus, but how does fish support heart health? “Omega-3 fatty acids in fish are the biggest contributing benefit to heart health,” says Maguire. Evidence shows omega-3 fatty acids, such as those found in fish, may support heart health. (There are three types of omega-3s — and two are found in fish.)

It’s also worth noting that “fish is a large component of the Mediterranean diet, and research shows that this type of diet comes out on top time and time again due to its health benefits,” says Maguire. Those benefits include heart health.

Which Fish Are High in Omega-3 Fatty Acids?

Now that you know why you should consume omega-3s, you’re likely wondering which fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids. (Spoiler alert: not fried shrimp or the fish that accompanies your chips!) In short, it’s the fattier ones — like salmon, sardines, albacore tuna, mackerel, and lake trout — that are higher in omega-3s, says Maguire.

But, she adds, that doesn’t mean you should only choose fish and seafood based on omega-3 content. “It’s a good idea to switch it up depending on goals,” Maguire says. “Some white fish lower in omega-3s can be a good protein source that is lower in fat and calories.”

What About Cholesterol in Shellfish?

Shellfish isn’t high in omega-3s, though it is a good source of protein. But, what about cholesterol in shellfish? Does that negate the other offerings? Some types of seafood, such as shrimpcrab, and lobster, do contain notable amounts of cholesterol, which may raise a red flag for you if you’re looking at the Nutrition Facts.

But there’s good news: Evidence is beginning to show that you don’t need to sweat the cholesterol in your food, including seafood. “It’s always good to check with your personal dietitian or physician when it comes to blood lipid levels and diet; however, research is showing that dietary cholesterol from foods like shellfish doesn’t impact blood cholesterol levels as much as other factors like saturated or trans fat and even genetics,” says Maguire. (Who’s ready for some healthy seafood recipes?)

How Often Should You Eat Fish?

So now you’re sold on the health benefits of fish, and you decide it’s time to start making it a regular part of your balanced diet. But how often should you eat fish? You should eat about eight ounces a week, according to the 2015 Dietary Guidelines recommendations, but most Americans are not quite there yet.

If you’re consuming the national average of 15.5 pounds of fish and shellfish annually, that works out to a little more than 1.5 servings a week — and that’s not quite enough to meet the Dietary Guidelines. That also falls short of the American Heart Association’s recommendations that all adults eat fish (particularly fatty fish) at least two times a week. (These tips to eat more seafood can help you get started if you’re new to eating or cooking fish.)

Both freshwater and cold-water fish are smart protein choices. Beyond the usual trout, salmon, and tuna (all three of which are high in omega-3s), you could also try catfish, cod, or halibut. Shellfish and clams can also be part of your diet, and you could also include sardines — which are packed with omega-3s!

What Are the Risks of Eating Fish?

As with any food, there can be too much of a good thing. Fish is no exception. While experts say the health benefits of fish are not outweighed by the risks of eating fish, some fish are higher in heavy metals like mercury, as well as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, a type of industrial toxin.

Both the US Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency have guidelines on what types of fish to eat (and in what quantity) and which ones to avoid. And, while it doesn’t impact your health, there are also environmental risks. If that is a concern for you, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch recommendations list can help guide your fish choices.

Which Fish are Low in Mercury?

Here’s a quick list of which fish are low in mercury (and how often you can safely eat others). Fish that are lower in mercury include salmon, freshwater trout, and tilapia. The bigger the fish and the higher up the food chain, the more mercury it could contain. Swordfish and ahi tuna are among the highest in mercury.

The Takeaway

Fish has plenty of health benefits: It’s a good source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids, which help support heart health. You should be eating fish and seafood twice a week (unless you’re a vegetarian, of course), so if you’re not reaching that goal, consider adding these healthy fish recipes to your meal plan.