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Flushing Out Facts About Fresh Fish

Sustainable Health Nutshell: Treat fish as a treat- eat it at most 1-2 times a week, and to keep fishermen in business, the oceans full of fish, and yourself healthiest, choose your seafood carefully from the Seafood Watch guide every time!

I realize I’m pole-vaulting over the topic of the health of the oceans in general, but for today, I’m covering two important things: 1. The seafood we eat is animal muscle and therefore susceptible to the things discussed in The Meat Issue, and 2. Increased popularity and marketing of seafood as a “healthy” alternative to “meat” has decimated fish stocks (see this great article) and the commercial fishing industry’s unrestrained harvesting to take advantage of the popularity has hurt small fishermen’s livelihoods. This is an unsustainable situation for more than just our (the U.S.’s) new seafood cravings. First, though, I’ll list the best choices to eat and not to eat in case you’re strapped for time.

Healthiest options for you and the ocean: wild-caught Alaskan salmon, Pacific sardines, farmed oysters and mussels, troll or pole-caught albacore tuna from B.C. or US, wild-caught Dungeness crab from US west coast, wild-caught Atlantic longfin squid, and tank-farmed rainbow trout, barramundi, and Arctic char. Check this great company for fish they’ll ship to you and info about their sustainable practices! No, I’m not paid for advertising for them. Yet. :)

Please don’t buy or eat these!: Farmed salmon, orange roughy, sharks, Chilean seabass, grouper, and most imported seafood including shrimp, swordfish, and mahi mahi. Tuna is difficult because of the popularity and processing issues involved- check where and how it’s caught- this page is helpful but still confusing- and at least avoid tuna caught by long-line and purse-seine (the most commonly used type of fishing gear), and avoid the bluefin variety entirely. Oh. And NEVER eat GMO seafood like the salmon that bypassed any safety studies at all…

Now this may seem obvious but here it is: the animals we consider ‘seafood’ and fish are animals. We often forget this since we’re land creatures ourselves and more used to categorizing animals as things that walk or fly. A huge number of vegetarians even consider fish not to be ‘meat’ and eat it along with dairy and vegetables (sometimes eggs are included there too). But in the realms of ecology and physical health, since most animals that are considered seafood consume plants and concentrate the plant energy into their more mobile forms, animal protein from the ocean must also be considered “meat.” (and for the remainder of the post I’ll say fish instead of seafood because really I’m too lazy to deal with grammatical/language issues involved there!)

Ok, so at different stages in the ocean’s food chain (sizes of fish basically), there are differences in the issues of sustainability of each population, scarcity in general of each species, concentration of pollutants and heavy metals in each fish caught, as well as differing percentage of omega-3 fatty acids and healthy nutrients like calcium and vitamin D in each species (which also depends on their diet- especially regarding farmed fish). The bigger and older the fish, the more plants and/or smaller fish it has eaten, the more energy and ‘extras’ (for instance, mercury, pesticides from runoff, plastics and its hormone-mimicking chemicals etc) will be concentrated into its body. [For articles on ocean plastic and the animals that eat it check this and this out.] For a more readily accessible correlation, you can think of the difference between a cow and a chicken (in terms of how much they have to eat to grow that size and how long their natural life spans are) being similar to a tuna and a tilapia.

One of the latest nutrition fads that’s caused a huge surge in fish consumption is the issue of omega-3 fatty acids, which is actually not super straightforward. The “American diet” involves way too many omega 6 and 9 fats, and not enough omega 3s, which our bodies can’t make for themselves even from the other types of omegas. Some fish can be a great source of these ‘good’ fats, and so have been promoted extensively recently, even to the point of popularizing taking supplements of fish oil. The thing is, just like any other ‘single nutrient,’ omega 3s haven’t worked as well as eating actual fish (and not fried fish!) as far as general health benefits. It may be an issue of oxidation (fried fish increase heart disease and stroke likely for that reason, but also most fish oil is purified by distilling up to 450 degrees F which, while removing mercury etc, would also cause significant oxidization), or an issue of the type of fish from which the oil is obtained (for instance, whale or seal blubber is a common source of ‘fish oil’ according to WebMD! that is not ok. they are also not fish.), or really, and more likely, as with most single nutrients our western ‘health science’ tends to focus on, that the whole food itself (in moderation) is the best way to obtain its health benefits!

So what are these benefits? Well, it’s still fuzzy too. One study by JAMA says overall mortality is 17% lower in fish-eaters. In an IOM study, for pregnant women, fish seem to promote healthy vision and brain development and prevent pre-term low birth-weight babies. (see the old summary article from the Washington Post here.) The most recent searches on UpToDate and WebMD list definite reductions in triglycerides, less chance of death from coronary artery disease, and then they get more vague. Maybe more fish (but not fried fish or fish cooked at high temperatures) or maybe more fish oil means less chance of atrial fibrillation, artery disease in general, osteoporosis, and inflammation, a slight reduction in blood pressure, and it might be helpful for some psychiatric and neurologic illnesses.

dolphin on the sidewalk in santa barbara

Honestly? It’s like any other animal. Raising pastured chicken and cows and such increases their amounts of omega 3s and nutrition profiles compared to corn-fed animals. Feeding corn to salmon or any other fish (yes, they do that in fish farms. it’s insane.) increases their ratio of ‘bad’ fats and makes them sick just like it does in cows (should we discuss antibiotics again? eh, nah. maybe read the eggs post again if you like. they have to do it to farmed fish too). Eating less animal protein (as compared to the typical American diet which includes meat in 2-3 meals per day) in general is better for you. Replacing corn-fed animal products with pastured animals, or with sustainable fish a couple times a week will likely improve your overall health. Cutting down to eating animal protein twice a week (or less, if at all) will very likely help you lose weight, improve your blood pressure and cholesterol, and reduce overall body inflammation and susceptibility to disease.

Paying attention to how the animals you eat grow up, including making sure their habitats are healthy (i.e. free of pesticides, fertilizers, and human waste like plastic!), and eating moderate amounts of locally caught/produced and sustainably caught/produced food from someone you actually know will help ensure the next generations grow up healthy and also that they’ll know how very tasty fish is. And doing these simple sustainably healthy things might allow you the chance to get to know those next generations, and to know them in a cleaner and more peaceful environment!

Which came first?

Who cares?! Eggs are yummy! :) But seriously…

First, the Sustainable Health Nutshell: If you don’t have chickens of your own, find a neighbor or farmer close by who does. Make sure they pasture-raise them, and use organic feed if they purchase it elsewhere! Eat them fresh and not cooked at hotter temperatures than 220 degrees. {And if you’re willing to take some Ayurvedic advice, try not to mix them with milk, potatoes, or fruit- this may help your symptoms if you have food sensitivities, problems losing weight, or skin issues…**}

So, are eggs good for you or not? It depends, but in moderation, yes! Eggs have a lovely balance of concentrated nutrition that would end up being an entire baby chick if it was allowed- which means lots of perfectly balanced protein, fats (including cholesterol for brain development), minerals, and vitamins like B12 (necessary for those who don’t eat meat). The fats include Omega-3s (higher percentages in chickens allowed to pasture graze), but also 70% of the RDA of cholesterol… which means it has only 70% of what you need to eat in a day to be healthy- so if you eat a very healthy diet otherwise with little cholesterol, that’s fantastic and you can have two! :) But if your diet includes many other sources of fats, eating many eggs in addition certainly gives you an excess. [My cholesterol post debunks a few myths about cholesterol, which by itself isn’t really the problem, and egg cooking tips are in the last paragraph here- the point is moderation is the key regardless of what you do!]

The other issue many people don’t always connect with animal raising is antibiotic resistance. Overuse of antibiotics in people creates some resistance, but the continual use in animal feed has escalated the problem exponentially. The first resistant bacteria in our valley seen by the other doctor I work with was around 10 years ago. He noticed the patient’s resistance profile happened to be exactly the same as the list of antibiotics in the widely-used brand of non-organic chicken feed he was forced to buy that week when the small local feed store ran out of the organic version that only he and one other valley resident requested… The CDC has a great summary here of why one particular bacteria has become resistant, and the same applies to hemorrhagic e. coli, MRSA, and VRE… And thank goodness, a recent bill proposed would make the FDA ban the use of antibiotics in animals that are not sick (yikes that that’s necessary)! Organic feed and pasture for your chickens ensures no antibiotics are snuck in so the animals don’t develop resistant bacteria and pass it onto you, through themselves or in and on their eggs!

Now, how do you find great eggs? Supermarket eggs may be a bit confusing with all the green-washing, so look for the words “pasture-raised,” organic or sustainable, and go to the websites of the companies to see how they treat their chickens. Roaming chickens that get to eat bugs and grass in addition to grain-based feed have a much better nutrition profile, brighter yolks, and thicker stronger shells, which gives you a nice solid physical idea of how much better they are for you. Farmers markets usually have someone who is selling their eggs, so that’s even better because you can ask them in person! If you’d like to try your hand, check out Dare 2 Dream Farms (and buy their eggs if you live near the co-op in Isla Vista or near New Frontiers market in Solvang)! They have a great website that explains several different breeds of chickens if you’re wondering what type to keep for yourself, or if you wonder what types lay what colors and sizes of eggs! Personally I think I’d try the Russian Orloffs if I lived in a cold place (plus they’re endangered so breeding them is cool :) ), and Brahmas for this part of Cali… friendly and happy to be in a little yard sounds good for a first go at keeping chickens. Check that same site for tips on what exactly you need and how to do it (‘care guide’). Oh, and you don’t need a rooster to get your hens to lay (good news since those guys can be feisty and loud… think Kauai)- you only need one if you would like to breed or need your hens protected.

Eggs are a high-energy food, and should be treated as such. Eating just a few, only when you need the nourishment, and cooking them properly are key. My favorite way is to make a quick 20 second tarka of a little warmed olive oil and spices (including turmeric to help digest the cholesterol), add the egg, then put a little water around the edge of the egg, and cover the frying pan with a lid to lightly poach it. I cook them until the white is done and the water just steams off so the eggs don’t get too hot and oxidize the cholesterol, and I generally serve them over veggies I cooked in the same pan (not a dishes fan!). The temperature issue means that using egg substitutes (heated and processed), buying packaged foods with egg proteins added (usually heated to very high temperatures to make a powder that is added for texture or protein), and eating lots of baked goods with eggs in them isn’t such a great idea. Mindfulness + moderation= healthier you and healthier planet. :)


**Ayurvedic tip: Improper food combining can contribute to poor digestion and buildup of ama or toxins that can lead to health problems. Some of the most common symptoms of poor digestion in the US are experienced as food sensitivities and skin problems… eggs are very rich and full of prana/energy, so they are particularly prone to making things difficult for a stressed digestive system if not eaten mindfully, hence the advice above :) Questions? Add a comment or send an email! ;)

The Meat Issue

The Sustainable Health Nutshell is at the bottom this time! So scroll down if you can’t wait. :)

First, thank you SO much to all of you that came to my presentation! I felt so loved, and it went really well for a first public speaking experiment, 100% because of your great questions and attention! Thank you. Next time will be even better, promise. ;)

Here are a few interesting facts that people who lobby for corn fed cows don’t really want you to know: 1 cup of lentils has as much iron as 4oz of steak… Vegans have the same occurrence of iron-deficiency anemia as the general population (Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 1999)… The average person only needs about 10% of calories from protein to be healthy, and more than 40% can cause severe illness (National Research Council in the Journal of Appl. Physiol. Nutr. Metab. 2006)… B12 deficiency is not actually inevitable for vegetarians and is not common… Vegetarians have less osteoporosis, high blood pressure, diabetes, coronary artery disease, and obesity (I can get you the refs if you like :) )… Vegetarian athletes can win triathlons (Dave Scott actually won 6 Ironman Triathlons as a vegan)… Current widely consumed animal breeds genetically have higher levels of hormones than ever before even without injecting them, since they have been bred to have increased muscle size and therefore available ‘meat…’ It is really hard not to get the basic amount of protein needed from non-animal foods if you eat enough calories. Even rice has some protein for heaven’s sake.

This post isn’t saying vegetarianism or veganism is for everyone. Every individual is different. Eating meat isn’t ‘evil’ or anything of that sort. And eating only vegetable foods means having to mindfully eat combinations of foods to get adequate nutrition (adding eggs and milk products makes it worlds easier of course). Something with so much concentrated energy as an animal can be thought of as medicinal, and can be consumed helpfully by people living in harsh environments and by people that have been depleted by trauma, surgery, illness, or intense suffering. One thing is certain, though. The western diet, with large amounts of corn-fed animal protein eaten daily (cows, pigs, and even farmed salmon are forced to eat corn now), is definitely not healthy for anyone, and is terrible for the health of the planet.

For instance, cows are built to eat grass, but feeding them corn makes them fat quickly (“finishing” in feedlots and “marbling” in steak). It also makes them very sick quickly and changes healthy Omega 3 fats to more inflammatory Omega 6 and 9 fats. The same happens to farmed corn-fed salmon (who clearly didn’t evolve to ingest corn). Michael Pollan has done a lovely review of the corn issue in his books and commentaries so I won’t belabor that point here.

As for the wider environmental impacts, consider that 40% of the world’s agriculture output is currently devoted to livestock production, with 33% of arable land going to produce feed- not for people, but for animals we intend to eat. Imagine if instead of doubling that production as expected, we cut those numbers, say, in half (by consuming less meat), and actually used the land to grow food for people. That would certainly make the worry about feeding the growing population much less overwhelming. And sustainable animal consumption would mean decreasing all of the following: water over-consumption, pollution of the oceans, rivers, and groundwater with petroleum-sourced fertilizers of nitrogen and phosphorus, the destruction of coral reefs, and of course rainforest deforestation…

I propose starting to think about what you eat. Which includes the land, water, fertilizer, pesticides, runoff, soil loss and degradation, and oil-driven transport of the grain that goes into making a cow (about 10 pounds of grain to 1 pound of cow muscle). Think of the concentration of hormones and of pesticides from all that grain the cow ate that now sit in that lovely Omega 6 corn marbling (those are largely fat-soluble, remember from my cholesterol post?). Think about an animal that was miserable the last few months of its life (if not its entire life in the case of most chickens) and how that might effect the energy that you’re making part of yourself when you eat that animal. How about thinking of this idea instead: animals living on a farm close to where you live, eating and going about their lives as they instinctively know how to behave… cared for by farmers who sustainably use the land and resources… perhaps someone like Joel Salatin.

That brings me to the Sustainable Health Nutshell: Treat meat as a treat! If you must eat it, choose pastured and local cow, pig, chicken, eggs, milk, etc. Find heirloom varieties if you can (some can even reproduce by themselves still, and most can fight off illness better and may have fewer extra hormones running through them). If you eat meat at most meals now, consider starting by taking it out of your menu one day per week and replacing it with something else interesting from the wealth of vegetarian and vegan cookbooks, websites, and farmers’ market options out there. Eventually aim to eat it once a week or once a month or only on special occasions. These are mindful decisions that will improve both your health and the planet’s.