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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! ;)

Fixing Milk’s Reputation

Sustainable Health Nutshell: The best way to take this highly nutritious food is to find a generous cow near you and get it right from the source… If that fails, find pastured, organic, and local non-skim milk, the least pasteurized version available, and drink it hot with spices! I know, that may sound odd… read on! :)

There is so much controversy surrounding such a basic substance! I’ll start by commenting on the top 3 arguments I’ve heard in my clinic and from friends, then I’ll answer other questions/comments that ya’ll might contribute. I’m not saying you should drink milk if you don’t, for whatever reason, but I will present some information you may not know that might change your mind.

1. Lactose intolerance. Most people that think they are lactose intolerant likely have a sensitivity and weakened digestion rather than milk being the actual problem (a post on digestive sensitivities and food intolerances and how to fix them coming soon!). While some people really do have a much smaller amount of the enzyme lactase needed to digest the lactose in milk, even most of those individuals can tolerate milk that’s been boiled briefly*, fresh yogurt (the bacteria eat the lactose and also produce extra lactase), traditionally made hard cheeses (also bacteria-consumed lactose and the whey is removed), and higher-fat milk products like cream and butter (less lactose present and no additional milk solids added for ‘sweetness’ generally). Interestingly, adding a small amount of lactose-containing products to the diet of a healthy person with lactose intolerance causes the bacteria in the intestine to produce lactase and thus get rid of the symptoms: the body and its helpful bacteria change based on what you take in! If your digestion is sketchy to begin with, then other things need to be done to strengthen it. Most people who stop dairy find that the symptoms return or change and more ‘food allergies’ are discovered: the uncomfortable digestive symptoms after taking milk products are likely not the fault of the milk at all.

2. Cows! So an objection I’ve heard strangely often is that people ‘weren’t meant to drink milk from another animal.’ {Which, really, given the interesting things people eat all over the world, including animals parts like eyes and brains and stomachs, not to mention all the bizarre chemical combinations processed and called ‘food’ out there, just makes it seem to me like a personal opinion, and a non-argument…} Milk is a highly energy-rich and nutritious food. It is absolutely necessary for babies, and human breast milk is all they need for their entire first 1-2 years. Milk from animals has been used for around ten thousand years, and entire cultures (such as those in Asian steppe countries like Tibet and Mongolia) depend on things like yak milk and butter (and meat) for survival in harsh regions. Milk is a great source of calcium, B12, protein, and other vitamins and minerals. The fat-soluble vitamin D is also abundant, conveniently along with enough healthy fat to aid its absorption. Since it is so energy-rich, the health of the living being that produces the milk is incredibly important: get your milk from healthy cows that live in a low-stress environment who eat healthy food (meaning primarily pasture grasses to ensure natural healthy fats and vitamins in the milk). If you can, find a cow near you so the milk is as fresh as possible and as local as possible. Fewer ‘food miles‘ is better for the environment, buying from a neighbor is better for the community you live in, and fresher non-processed milk is likely better for you too! Which leads to the 3rd issue…

3. The Raw milk vs Ultra-pasteurized milk battle. Raw milk, locally purchased from healthy, sustainable/organic grass-fed cows, and obtained from a clean and healthy dairy facility, is hands down a better choice, full of helpful probiotic bacteria and unadulterated fats, vitamins, proteins, and enzymes. And it tastes amazing. However, and this is a big however, it is illegal to sell in most places due to the difficulty regulating it, and buying it at the grocery store is prohibitively expensive. Pasteurization of milk by heating it to 161 degrees allows for longer transport and shelf life, but also sketchier dairy practices, hormone additions to keep milk volume high, and sick cows** that then need antibiotics. It kills most bacteria (beneficial ones especially), but not all, especially not the TB-related MAP bacteria (linked to Crohn’s disease), and others that survive pasteurization and cause milk to go ‘bad’ near it’s ‘expiration date’ instead of souring normally into something delicious like buttermilk, yogurt, or sour cream, as raw milk would do if left to its own devices. Because large-scale dairy producers liked the idea of a longer shelf life from pasteurization (originally intended to try to keep wine and beer from souring. funny), ‘ultrapasteurization’ (heating milk to 275 degrees) has become popular more recently. It’s promoted by frightening people into thinking milk that isn’t ultra-pasteurized is somehow ‘infected’ and dangerous, but truly exists so that large-scale dairy producers can ship their products longer distances and have them stay questionably ‘good’ longer.

So, what to do? Here is a great list of where you can buy raw milk from cows that are pastured, as close to local as you can get at this point, unless you know a neighbor who has a cow! And by the way I totally encourage the barter system for that since it’s illegal to purchase it as yet… Just meet the cow, make sure it’s clean and the container you collect it in is clean, try a little first, and get your system used to real milk! If that isn’t happening for you yet, Organic Valley is the best brand I’ve found so far, and though they do have to pasteurize to legally cross state lines, it’s a co-op and the best company that’s widely available for now. One cool thing, in the NW they offer non-homogenized*** whole milk, so that’s another plus if you live up there. Here’s a website of a raw milk promoter, and while I can’t vouch for all of the information presented there, it’s a good resource with some helpful links.

Use milk wisely- it can be a meal in itself if you are too late for dinner or not so hungry at breakfast. Heating it with spices like cardamom, cinnamon, and ginger makes it more easily digestible (heat until it just foams once, don’t actually boil it; the casein proteins- not the whey with the lactose- will clump together and actually make it difficult to digest). Cold milk is constipating and slows overall digestion, but warm milk is a laxative, and with nutmeg becomes a sleep aid. Milk is one of the only complete foods that is produced without loss of life or suffering of the animal it comes from, and the positive energy that it carries when obtained ethically can enhance your liveliness and health and contribute to the sustainable farming practices. Choose wisely and enjoy. :)

*boiling milk very briefly irreversibly denatures the whey that the lactose is part of and allows the unwound protein to be accessed more easily by whatever small or large amount of lactase is present in your digestive system

**cows become sickened with mastitis from the constant high-volume milking, and also because they are usually fed corn which ruins their stomachs as well as the healthy fat profile you find in grass-fed cows’ milk– the antibiotics used in large-scale agriculture creates most of the recent new strains of drug-resistant bacteria that are found in milk and beef and even vegetables exposed to animal wastes

***Homogenized means to make sure it doesn’t separate, the milk is passed through a membrane that causes the normal fat globules (that would normally rise to the top and be easily skimmed) to be broken down into tinier bits, that then have more surface area… which also means they are more exposed to enzymes and proteins in the milk that would cause it to go rancid more quickly if the milk were not also pasteurized and the enzyme destroyed