Fish are really one of our most ideal foods. Seafood offers a good protein balance to a primarily vegetarian diet. I have eaten fresh ocean fish at least weekly over most of the last decade after many years of a completely vegetarian diet. Because I lived close to the ocean, I felt it natural to include it in my diet in moderation. And my body certainly felt a difference.

Fish is a very good quality protein, easily usable by our body, and a complete protein? that is, it contains all our essential amino acids. It is also low in fats, and the fat that is present in fish is very helpful. In fact, recent evidence suggests that the eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexacnoic acid (DHA) that are contained in many fish help to lower blood cholesterol and protect us from hardening of the arteries, or atherosclerosis. EPA and DHA also seem to reduce platelet stickiness, which then reduces clotting potential and increases clotting time. This effect then decreases the likelihood of arterial thrombosis, heart attacks, and strokes.

This information comes from an investigation of the reason why peoples in certain fishing villages in Japan and Alaska who eat a very high-fat diet, consisting mainly of fish oils and fats from animals who eat fish, had a very low incidence of heart disease. This seemed contrary to our knowledge that fat was tied into high cholesterol levels and heart disease. Yet the fish that these villagers eat are very high in EPA and DHA and, further, these fatty acids have a different and possibly opposite effect from that of other animal fats. Many of the fish that contain EPA and DHA also contain cholesterol, though shrimp and lobster are the highest, but this cholesterol does not seem to be a problem when accompanied by these helpful fats. With further investigation, we are finding that some of those fats in fish that we thought were cholesterol are probably beneficial oils.

Examples of fish that are high in these special lipid-lowering fats, EPA and DHA, are salmon, mackerel, sardines, trout, and haddock. It is now suggested that eating these fish two or three times a week may help protect us from cardiovascular disease. A popular trend supported by both doctors and the vitamin industry is to supplement the diet with EPA and DHA oils in a dose of about 3 grams fish oil per Day (e.g., 3 grams salmon oil may contain about 350-700 ma. EPA and 250-500 ma. DHA). This will help to lower blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels, especially if they are elevated, and reduce the risk of coronary artery disease.

Fish are also fairly low in fat, containing about 5-10 percent, in comparison to red meats, which are usually between 30 and 40 percent. And, as we just discussed, the types of fat present in fish are more health promoting than disease causing, unlike the saturated fats. Furthermore, besides being relatively low in calories, seafood is very rich in vitamins and minerals. The first few times I ate fish after five or six years of being a lacto-ovo vegetarian, vegan, and raw fooder, I could feel my body absorb and utilize this concentrated nourishment like a dry sponge soaking up water droplets. It was like the increased efficiency of food utilization after a period of fasting.

Fish liver is especially high in vitamins A and D. Cod liver oil is a common old-time supplement used mainly to obtain these two important fat-soluble vitamins. Most seafood contains some B vitamins, though usually in low amounts, but biotin, niacin, B6, and especially vitamin Bl2 are often found in higher amounts in nutritious fish such as salmon, halibut, herring, mackerel, crab, and oysters. Vitamin E is found in some of the oilier fishes, such as mackerel and herring.

Seafood is a very good source of minerals, especially some of those harder-to-get trace minerals such as iodine, selenium, and zinc. Oysters are especially high in zinc, while crab and lobster are also fairly high; selenium is present in high amounts in most of the shellfish and mollusks and in codfish. Most fish are high in potassium and phosphorus. Iron levels are usually very good, and calcium can be high, especially if bones are consumed, as in sardines, and in salmon, shrimp, and herring. Calcium is actually higher in the seaweeds or sea vegetation, which are ideal foods to eat with fish. This is done commonly in Japan, and it makes good sense.

A wide variety of fish are eaten throughout the world. I will briefly discuss some of the main categories and some specific fish that are common to our Western diets.

Shellfish consist of a variety of small meaty and mineral-rich fish from two families, the mollusks and the crustaceans. The mollusks animals that are the sea filters, or “garbage eaters,” as I call them. These include clams, oysters, mussels, and scallops. I usually suggest that people avoid eating much of these foods. Since these shellfish eat by pumping water through their bodies, they can easily concentrate pollutants from the ocean. Whenever there is water contamination, it is specifically suggested that these fish be avoided. They can pick up chemicals, heavy metals such as mercury, and germs from sewage, for example. The mollusks can be delicious and very high in nutrients, but unless they come from waters known to be very clear, they are risky foods to eat and can be toxic.

The crustaceans are of less concern. They are not sea filters and live in deeper and usually cleaner waters than the mollusks. The major crustaceans, or soft-shelled fish, are crabs, lobsters, and shrimp. As mentioned before, these shellfish had been avoided because they were thought to be too high in cholesterol, but it turns out that what they contain is not all cholesterol but a mixture of lipids. Crustaceans are also fairly low in calories and high in protein and are used commonly, as are most fish, by people who are trying to lose or maintain weight. However, some religions, such as Judaism, forbid the consumption of crustaceans.

Seafood Sources of Vitamins and Minerals

  • Vitamins A?swordfish, whitefish, crab, halibut, salmon
  • B vitamin?crab, salmon, trout, halibut, mackerel, oysters
  • Vitamin B12?herring, mackerel, salmon, oysters, trout, crab
  • Vitamin E?herring, mackerel, haddock
  • Calcium?salmon, sardines, shrimp, oysters, herring
  • Copper?oysters, lobster, shrimp, crab, trout Iodine?most salt-water fish
  • Iron?oysters, abalone, carp, perch, salmon, scallops, shrimp, trout
  • Magnesium?mackerel, oysters, salmon, snails, shrimp, crab?generally low; some in snails and oysters
  • Phosphorus?cod, trout, halibut, perch, scallops, snapper, salmon
  • Potassium?cod, trout, halibut, perch, scallops, snapper, salmon
  • Selenium?lobster, scallops, shrimp, oysters, cod
  • Sodium?shrimp, lobster, mackerel, herring
  • Zinc?oysters, lobster, crab, halibut

The most nutritious fish overall I think are halibut, swordfish, and, probably, tuna, flounders, seabass, and cod from the sea, with some freshwater trout, whitefish, or perch and occasionally salmon or mackerel as the higherfat, more caloric fish. Most of these fish are very high in protein, variable in fat, and low in carbohydrates. They vary in calories from about 400-800 per pound. The fattier fish, such as salmon, mackerel, eel, herring, and trout, often have twice the calories of the less fatty fish and the shellfish. So even though these are thought to be helpful fats, the calorie count can lead to increased weight.

There is a growing trend of eating raw fish, which is common in the Japanese culture. Ibis is termed “sashimi” or “sushi,” fish with white rice, usually eaten with salty (soy sauce) and spicy (horseradish) sauces. This can be a very nutritious and low-calorie meal, but the Ash must be fresh and clean, as bacterial and parasitic contamination can lead to sickness in the consumer.

More commonly, baked or broiled fish with seasonings and lemons, often with some oil or butter and garlic or other herbs, is probably the overall best. Steamed or lightly sautéed fish can be very good. Fried fish and especially breaded fried fish should be avoided because of the high content of fat, calories, end salt, none of which are good for us in excess. Besides, the hydrogenated vegetable oils or polyunsaturated oils are difficult for our body to process, and thin can lead to other problems.

For weight loss, fish and vegetable meals are ideal, without extra oils, carbohydrates, or breads, of course, and no dessert. Fish with rice or pasta and vegetables, often cooked with the special flavors of garlic or onions, is a good balanced meal. (For weight watching and proper food combining, have just the fish and vegetables.) Shrimp, tuna, or sardines added to a salad with lots of greens and other vegetables is a very wholesome, healthy, and filling meal. I’m hungry; I think I will go make dinner.

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Elson M. Haas MD Written by Elson M. Haas MD

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