Here’s some scary news about seafood: Most of us are not eating nearly enough of it. A whopping 80 to 90 percent of Americans do not get the recommended minimum of 8 ounces weekly, according to a recent USDA analysis. That means the vast majority of us are not reaping seafood’s health benefits and are probably worse off for it. Eating fish dramatically reduces the chances of dying of a heart attack, improves children’s brain development, slows brain aging, lowers the risk of depression and mood disorders, can help with weight management and more. Then there are seafood’s culinary attributes— it’s one of the quickest-cooking proteins, there is an incredible variety to choose from, and it is the center of many fantastically delicious dishes.
So why are we passing on the bounty of the sea? The reason, at least in part, has to do with fears about it, from highly publicized stories about mercury contamination to feeling intimidated about purchasing and preparing it. I hope that after reading what follows, the only fish fear you will face is FOMO— fear of missing out.
Fear of mercury: You’ve probably heard that fish contains various amounts of mercury, a heavy metal and environmental pollutant that can accumulate in our tissues and, in excess, cause neurological damage. That is scary stuff, for sure. But letting that steer you away from fish is a mistake, because the upsides of eating it far outweigh any potential risks. Besides the multitude of health benefits mentioned above, largely attributed to the healthy omega-3 fat in it, fish is extremely rich in the essential mineral selenium, which, it turns out, binds with mercury and may help neutralize mercury’s effects. Scientists are taking a closer look at mercury-selenium ratios in fish rather than mercury alone in assessing the risk of contamination, and most ocean fish have more selenium than mercury.
The relative benefits of eating seafood are so clear and compelling that the Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency recently changed their recommendation for pregnant women and young children from a cap on fish consumption, which unfortunately led many to avoid it altogether, to a recommended minimum of 8 ounces, and up to 12 ounces, a week.
The government guidelines still suggest choosing fish that is lower in mercury, including salmon, shrimp, pollock, light canned tuna, tilapia, catfish, cod, sardines, sole and trout. Pregnant woman and children are advised to avoid the four types of fish that have the most mercury (tilefish, shark, swordfish and king mackerel), but put in proper perspective, most of us should be more concerned with eating enough fish than worrying about mercury.
Fear of buying it: Why do so many of us slink straight past the fish counter? A survey published in the Journal of Foodservice showed that affordability was a top-ranked reason consumers passed on seafood, and most said they didn’t have the knowledge to select the best quality. In other words, most people think fish is too expensive and are unsure how to choose it.
I admit nearly passing out when I paid $40 for a few center-cut halibut fillets recently (they made for a memorably delicious meal, however), but there are plenty of budget-friendly, high-quality seafood options in the store. A casual survey at my local market revealed several fresh fillets, such as salmon and tilapia, at $7 to $9 a pound, about the same price as top sirloin and only slightly more expensive than boneless chicken breast. As far as choosing the best-quality fresh fish, the easiest way to go if you are not especially knowledgeable about it is to buy from a fishmonger at a busy store with a good reputation in your area.
Don’t overlook frozen and canned seafood for both price and quality. Frozen fish and shellfish are a great bargain and convenient to have on hand. And because they are flash-frozen right after being caught, they are sometimes “fresher” than the fish at the counter. Canned or pouched fish such as tuna, salmon and sardines are also a convenient and economical way to get more fish into your life, and they boast the same health benefits as fresh fish—just keep an eye on sodium and choose low-salt varieties or hold off on adding salt to recipes that use them.
Lastly, it’s a good idea to shop for seafood with sustainability in mind. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch (seafoodwatch.org) has simple, printable guides you can download, as well as a free smartphone app, to help you choose wisely.
Fear of cooking it: Many people I talk to will order fish in a restaurant but lack the confidence to prepare it themselves, and that is backed by the Journal of Foodservice survey finding that most consumers say they don’t know how to cook fish.
There are, of course, a multitude of ways to prepare it, from simmering it in stews to grilling or searing it, but if you are a beginner, I suggest you go with what I find to be the most foolproof method: baking a fish fillet. The biggest risk in preparing fish is that it cooks so quickly it is easily overdone. Baking heats it at a lower temperature than grilling or broiling, so you have more control over the process and you don’t have to worry about flipping the fish midway through cooking. If you are worried about a “fishy” taste or smell, go for a white, flaky fillet, such as sole or tilapia.
Here’s the basic baked-fish formula: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the fish fillets flat on a baking sheet that has been sprayed or brushed with oil, then season them with salt and pepper. Add a sprinkle of Old Bay or Cajun seasoning if you want an extra kick. Grab a ruler and measure the thickness of the fillet at its fattest point and bake the fish for 10 minutes per inch thickness until it is no longer translucent and flakes easily with a fork. Serve sprinkled with fresh lemon or lime juice and enjoy every tasty, healthy bite—fearlessly.
By: Ellie Krieger is a registered dietitian, nutritionist and author. She blogs and offers a biweekly newsletter at elliekrieger.com. She also writes weekly Nourish recipes in The Washington Post’s Food section.