Whether you’re a landlubber or have had your sea legs all your life, you’ve no doubt heard the recommendation to eat seafood twice a week. In fact, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans specify a goal of 8 or more ounces of seafood per week (less for children)—ideally from a variety of species. Why the big push for us to dive in to a plate of fish or shellfish? Short answer: it’s got a lot going for it nutritionally.
High quality protein for few calories.
Lots of animal proteins come with more calories, total fat and saturated fat than seafood. For just 120 calories you can get 4 ounces of a lower-fat fish like cod, which will provide 25 grams of lean protein. That’s about 30% of the average recommended amount of protein. If you chose a fattier fish, such as salmon, that 4 ounce serving would only “cost” you about 200 calories—a nutritional bargain. And the best part about that fat? A good amount of that fat is healthy, polyunsaturated fat—including omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-3 fatty acids that we need for good health.
The omega-3s known as EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (dacosahexaenoic acid) are associated with a variety of health benefits, and fish and shellfish are the main food sources of these healthy fatty acids. According to the National Institutes of Health, research shows that EPA and DHA from fish and shellfish can decrease triglyceride levels (high triglyceride levels are associated with heart disease and untreated diabetes)—perhaps by as much as 50%! They also protect against heart attack and sudden death, as well as decrease risk of cardiovascular disease.
There are many other possible health benefits that omega-3s may confer, such as helping with brain and nerve development (fish isn’t known as “brain food” for nothing!), as well as vision development, blood pressure regulation, and benefits for people with kidney problems, rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure and asthma, among others. Which commonly available fish are high in omega-3s? Anchovies, sardines, wild salmon, mackerel, sable fish, whitefish, herring and tuna are great sources, though other favorite types like halibut, pollock, mussels, crab, scallops and shrimp area also moderate sources.
Many minerals are found in fish and shellfish.
Yes, certain types of seafood can be a decent source of vitamins A and D (especially the fattier species) as well as some B vitamins, but it’s the wide variety of important minerals that amazes me. Selenium, iron, zinc, iodine, phosphorus and calcium (from fish with edible bones such as sardines and canned salmon) are all found in varying amounts in most fish and shellfish—something that most people don’t realize because we’re all too busy thinking about protein and omega-3s.
Some of the mineral content is a reflection of the waters in which the fish live, and mineral levels can vary seasonally, but no matter the reason, these minerals are important to health. Selenium is an important antioxidant, iodine is essential for thyroid health and a healthy metabolism, and zinc is involved in lots of cellular reactions and impacts proper growth and development, immunity and the senses of taste and smell.