Which fish and seafood are better for our health?

Anchovies, herring, mackerel and sardines are excellent sources of protein and trace elements

Many health-conscious consumers have already cut back on hamburgers, steaks and deli meats, often substituting poultry or fish and seafood. These sources of protein are better than beef, and not just because they’re linked to a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Chicken and fish are also better for the environment because they don’t take up as much land and resources to produce and produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

Choosing fish and seafood lower on the food chain, especially small fish like herring and sardines and shellfish like mussels and oysters, can increase these benefits.

Choosing fish and seafood is better for your health and the environment, says Christopher Golden, associate professor of Nutrition and Planetary Health at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. But he suggests that instead of popular seafood like farmed salmon or canned tuna, consider mackerel or sardines.

Why eat small fish?

Anchovies, herring, mackerel and sardines are excellent sources of protein, micronutrients such as iron, zinc and vitamin B12, and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, which help reduce inflammation in the body and maintain a better balance of lipids in the blood. Because you often eat the whole fish (with the bones, which are small), small fish are also rich in calcium and vitamin D, says Golden. Mackerel is an exception: mackerel bones are too sharp or hard to eat, although they can be eaten canned.

Smaller fish also contain less mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) than larger species such as tuna and swordfish. These and other large fish feed on smaller fish and absorb toxins.

It is more environmentally friendly to eat small fish directly instead of using them to make fishmeal, which is often fed in fish farms, pig and poultry production. Forage for these species also includes grains that require as much land, water, pesticides and energy to produce as livestock feed grains, Golden notes. The good news is that salmon farming has begun to use less and less fishmeal, and some companies have created highly nutritious feeds that require no fishmeal at all.

Small fish in the Mediterranean diet

Golden says the traditional Mediterranean diet, considered best for heart health, includes small fish like fresh sardines and anchovies. Widely available and cheaper than fresh fish, canned fish are a good choice. However, most canned anchovies are salty and therefore high in sodium, which can raise blood pressure.

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