Eating fish is associated with many known health benefits. Despite this, most Americans fail to eat the recommended weekly amount of fish.
On one hand, the benefits of eating fish include being a source of lean protein, bone-building nutrients, and heart-healthy fats. On the other hand, some people may be intimidated to cook with fish or may not be confident about the healthiest fish options with the lowest mercury risk.
To clear up any confusion with eating fish, let's dive into the true benefits of eating fish, how much fish is recommended, and other considerations about how seafood is healthy.
Is Fish a Meat?
Fish is technically considered a meat, as it is the flesh eaten by an animal. However, nutritionally, fish can be quite different from other meats such as beef, poultry, or pork.
Fatty fish like salmon, sardines, tuna, herring, mackerel, or lake trout are good sources of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. This is unique compared to other meats and also why there are specific recommendations for fish intake.
Additionally, fish can be a good source of vitamin D, unlike other meats, and is lower in saturated fats compared to other meats. Similarities between fish and other meats include being a good source of protein and B vitamins.
Another reason fish is sometimes set apart from other meats can be from religious standpoints. Some religions exclude fish from guidelines around consuming meat.
For example, fish can be eaten on Fridays during Lent season for Catholicism but not other meats. Judaism also has unique considerations for fish apart from other meats.
7 Benefits of Eating Fish
Curious why everyone is talking about the health benefits of fish? Read on to discover the top 7 benefits fish offers. Some may be surprising, and not all benefits are just related to fatty fish!
1. Improve Heart Health
One of the most well-known benefits of eating fish is related to improving heart health. The reason fish can benefit heart health is mainly due to the high omega-3 fatty acids they provide. Omega-3's helps fight inflammation, which is an underlying cause of heart disease and many other chronic diseases.
According to Mayo Clinic, omega-3 fats from fish have also been shown to help lower blood triglycerides, blood pressure, reduce blood clotting, and lower the risk of stroke.
While all fish provide some omega-3's, fatty fish like salmon, sardines, tuna, herring, mackerel, or lake trout are highest in omega-3’s and can therefore provide the greatest heart health benefit.
2. Protect Brain Function
The omega-3 fats from fish are primarily from docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). There is a high concentration of DHA in the brain and nervous system. Therefore, eating dietary sources of DHA can directly impact brain and nervous system health.
A November 2021 study made waves by concluding fish intake is associated with brain vascular health which can ultimately lower the risk for cognitive decline. Researchers took brain scans of all study participants and asked about the frequency of eating fish.
Researchers found among healthy adults aged 65 years or older, two or more servings of fish per week may help protect against dementia. While this study does not prove fish can definitively prevent dementia and more research is needed, it does suggest fish has an important role in protecting brain function.
3. Help with Weight Management
Eating lean protein at meals can be a key component of long-term success for weight loss and management - and there are so many delicious ways to enjoy a variety of fish!
Compared to other meats, most types of fish are lower in fat and calories while being high in protein. This makes fish an excellent component for healthy and filling meals that can promote weight loss and maintenance.
4. Excellent Source of Collagen
While bone broth and collagen supplements often come to mind as sources of collagen, fish is another somewhat surprising source of collagen. Collagen is a good source of amino acids, and fish-based collagen may have even more health benefits than collagen coming from land animals.
According to a 2017 review, marine-based collagen sources possess higher antioxidant effects than collagen peptides derived from other protein foods.
Pro tip: When eating fish and wanting to get the collagen benefits, do not toss the skin. Most fish collagen is from the skin as well as small bones.
5. Lower Risk for Childhood Allergies
Fish and seafood allergies are considered one of the top eight food allergens. However, if children are not allergic to fish, they can reap the health benefits of fish as well as adults.
In fact, a 2019 review suggests eating fish in early childhood years can prevent certain allergic diseases, including asthma, eczema, and allergic rhinitis (chronic runny nose). Research has also shown fish consumption in infancy was inversely related to childhood asthma incidence.
6. Lower Risk for Metabolic Syndrome
While fatty fish sources get the spotlight for heart health benefits, lean fish get the spotlight for the health benefit of lowering the risk for metabolic syndrome, according to a 2017 study.
Researchers found lean fish consumption once a week or more was significantly associated with decreased risk for metabolic syndrome, specifically for decreased triglycerides, and increased high-density lipoprotein (HDL)-cholesterol.
Additionally, for men, decreased waist circumference and blood pressure were also associated with lean fish intake.
7. Good Source of Bone-Building Nutrients
Dairy products are not the only source of bone-building nutrients. Fish also provides two essential nutrients needed for strong bones: vitamin D and calcium.
Fish is one of the best dietary sources of vitamin D with fatty fish being the best sources. Fish with small bones like salmon and sardines also provide a source of calcium.
Mercury and Other Concerns with Eating Fish
Even though there are benefits of eating fish, there are also concerns with mercury and other persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in fish.
This begs the question, do the health benefits outweigh safety concerns? Experts suggest for most people, the health benefits of fish do outweigh the concerns of mercury and other contaminants as long as a variety of fish is eaten in balance as part of a healthy diet.
Larger fish such as shark, tilefish, swordfish, and King Mackerel have a higher capacity for mercury and POPs contamination. Albacore tuna is also known to be at a higher risk of mercury contamination compared to other types of tuna. Therefore, it is recommended to limit the intake of these larger fish to minimize overexposure of POPs in fish.
It is also recommended to follow guidelines from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for safety recommendations for fish advisories in various parts of the country.
Another concern with eating fish is the quality of fish and using lower quality fish in place of other fish. For example, swai fish has been used in place of catfish and grouper but is considered a lower quality fish.
Fish that are farmed raised from other countries may have questionable growing practices such as overuse of antibiotics, sewer sludge, higher risk of contaminants, and lower amounts of omega-3's. Therefore, wild and sustainably caught fish is considered optimal to eat fish with the highest nutritional values.
Always try and validate a source when selecting a fish. Purchasing from reputable brands, such as bistroMD, can also ensure fish safety. For instance, bistroMD's catfish come from the coastal plains of eastern North Carolina. The fish swim in pure water free of pesticides or synthetic chemicals, in which they eat a diet native to the species.
How Much Fish Should You Eat?
Mayo Clinic suggests the following amounts of fish to eat based on recommendations from the FDA and EPA.
• Adults: Eat at least 8 ounces or two servings, 4 ounces each, of omega-3-rich fish in a week.
• Women who are trying to conceive, are pregnant, or breastfeeding: Consume up to 12 ounces of seafood per week from a variety of choices that are lower in mercury contamination. Avoid larger fish sources that are at higher risk for mercury contamination and only eat up to 4 ounces of albacore tuna per week.
• Children: eat fish from choices lower in mercury once or twice a week. The serving size for children younger than age 2 is 1 ounce and increases with age.
Can You Take Fish Oil Supplements Instead of Eating Fish?
What if you do not want to eat fish? Can you get the health benefits from fish by taking a supplement?
While there are some health benefits of taking an omega-3 fish oil supplement, there is more evidence eating fish is associated with stronger health benefits. In fact, some research suggests there are other components in fish besides omega-3's that benefit heart health.
While fish are considered some of the best dietary sources of omega-3's, other plant foods that also provide omega-3’s in lower quantities include nuts, seeds, canola oil, soybean oil, and leafy green vegetables.
Conclusion: Is Fish Good For You?
While fish can be technically considered a meat, it offers unique nutritional benefits that differ from other meats mainly by being higher in omega-3's, lower in saturated fats, and fatty fish being higher in vitamin D.
There are many benefits of eating fish, as fish is a good source of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, lean protein, and bone-building nutrients. However, despite these health benefits, most Americans do not reach the recommended intake of 8 ounces of fish per week for adults.
Other considerations for eating fish include eating a variety of fish and minimizing intake of larger fish high in mercury and other contaminants.
In addition, follow local safety guidelines for locally sourced fish. Keep in mind farmed fish may differ nutritionally from wild-caught, and some fish sources, unfortunately, maybe fraudulently concealed as lower quality fish.
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