Many folks switch from beef to chicken or fish in an attempt to eat a more heart-healthy diet? But is this actually the result? And if you omit fish altogether and go fully plant-based, can you get enough Omega-3s? We're setting the record straight on whether fish is the health food we're told it is.
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As plant-based eating become more popular (and scientifically-backed), it's not exactly a secret that many animal products can harm our health. Dairy products and red meat, in particular, make the news for leading to some of the Western world's most common chronic diseases, from heart disease and high blood pressure to type 2 diabetes and cancer. And while many folks are eager to eat more plant-based foods, they're wondering if fish and seafoods are a better alternative to other meats. Not to mention, it's widely known that fish is an exceelent source of Omega-3s, a fatty acid proven to be extremely important to our overall health.
So is fish a health food? And should it be part of your plant-based diet? Here's what you need to know.
There are Heavy Metals in Fish
Unfortunately, our oceans are not as clean as they once were and this affects the fish and other organisms that live in them, big time. Loaded with heavy metals, such as mercury, cadmium, and PCB, fish is now one of the least "clean" foods you can put on your plate.
If you have been pregnant, you might remember your doctor’s advice to reduce your fish intake. This is because mercury levels in fish are especially dangerous, as they can harm a baby’s developing brain in utero. High levels of mercury aren't great for small children, either.
Which fish have the most mercury? Usually the bigger ones, like shark, swordfish, fresh tuna, and marlin, through the natural process of bioaccumulation.
And Pollutants: Are You Eating Plastic?
It's not just heavy metals that you should be wary of when eating fish. According to many studies, fish are loaded with microplastics, tiny pieces of plastic that you end up consuming when you eat fish. Oceans have sadly become landfills and fish end up mistaking the garbage humans throw in it for food.
According to a 2017 UN report, there are more than 51 trillion microplastic particles in the sea. These microplastics float on the surface of the water and stick to PCBs, and pesticides that love plastic. Fish end up eating them as they are so tiny, and these harmful little beads accumulate in fish, only to be consumed by people who are trying to improve their healths thinking that what they are eating will provide them with essential nutrients, such as omega-3s...
There's Still Cholesterol and Saturated Fat in Fish
Many people concerned about their heart health make the move from beef switch to seemingly healthier meats, like fish. But are we simply replacing something really unhealthy with something less unhealthy, but still not great?
The nutritional profile of fish would suggest yes. While fish does indeed have some of the brain-healthy Omega-3s they get such good press for (more on that in a minute), most of the fat content in fish is saturated fat and cholesterol.
Speaking of Omega-3s...what's the big deal here?
Omega-3 fatty acids are extremely important to our health! They support our immune system, protect against cancers, and fight against inflammation. Omega-3s are also protective against heart disorders and promote the healthy function of our nervous system, helping our memory and our learning (they're excellent brain food!).
And while fish is definitely high in Omega-3s, there's more to the story. As already mentioned, most of the fat content in fish is saturated fat and cholesterol. But also of note: did you know that wild caught fish only contain Omega-3s because they get it from the plants they eat? Yep, this means that farm raised fish that eat pellets aren't such a great source of Omega-3s.
Sounds like a better idea to go straight to the source of your Omega-3s and just eat plants, right?
With this in mind, let's talk about which plant-based foods are best for getting your Omega-3s in.
Addie Dulaney Majnaric, RDN, has to say about omega-3s and a plant-based lifestyle:
“DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid. It’s one of two “long-chain” omega-3s in our bodies (the other is called EPA).
We need DHA to improve heart health and vision and to reduce inflammation in the body. It also is crucial for the development of the brain during pregnancy and early child childhood.
Our bodies make DHA from “short-chain” omega-3 fatty acids that we eat. Our bodies do not make any omega-3s fatty acids on their own. We have to eat them in order to have them.
Plant-based foods high in omega-3 fatty acids are flax seed, chia seeds, and walnuts.
It’s recommended for adults to consume, per day, about 2-3 Tablespoons of ground flax seed, about 2 Tbsp of chia seeds, or ¼ cup walnuts to get appropriate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. If you’re glucose-intolerant, flax seed may be the best choice for you. It is less fatty and less calorically dense than the other sources.
Other great sources of omega-3s include Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, and seaweed.
If you're worried about your Omega-3 consumption, read more about whether supplementing is something to consider.
- While the harmful effects of eating red meat and dairy is more well-known, there is still confusing among folks about the health benefits and/or risks of eating fish.
- Contrary to popular belief, fish is not necessarily a health food. It's high in heavy metals and contains harmful microplastics. It's also got saturated fat and cholesterol, making it not such a great choice for heart health.
- While fish is high in important Omega-3s, you can get plenty of Omega-3s from plant-based foods like flax seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts.
Rafaela Michailidou is a Vegan Lifestyle Coach, and a freelance health and wellness content writer, with a Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies.