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(And 3 You Definitely Want to Avoid)
If you’re like most people, you know that some amount of fish is good for your diet. After all, the food is loaded with nutrients and lean protein. In addition, fish oil can assist in any number of ailments, including heart disease, muscle pain, and it’s even great for your skin. But you probably also know that not all fish are the same… so which exactly are the best fish to eat for health?
For starters, let’s just clarify that although there are some fish that are better than others, most of the “less healthy” fish are still preferable to red meat or fried food. If you’re starting from a diet that relies on lots of fast food and want to know the best fish to eat for health, the answer may be “just about any fish at all.”
There are years of studies to support seafood’s popularity as a healthy option. Many of the world’s healthiest and longest-lived populations live in areas that are abundant in local seafood. Regional diets such as the Mediterranean Diet in Italy, the Japanese Diet in the islands of Japan, and the Nordic Diet in Scandinavia all are known for increasing longevity and quality of life.
Scandinavia, Japan, and Italy are quite different both geographically and in terms of their climates. So what are the common characteristics the regional diets share? Fruit, vegetables, whole grains… and plenty of fish.
All the same, looking at all the factors can sometimes make going to the seafood section a bit overwhelming. If you’re trying to keep in mind nutrition, price, environmental impact (not to mention what kind of fish you actually like the best), there’s a lot to consider.
Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. We’ll take a quick look at a few of the best fish to eat for health, share some tips on how you can best serve them, and we’ll also make a few suggestions on what to avoid.
Let’s dive in!
What Makes Fish Healthy?
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First off, there are a few things that almost all fish have in common. Fish are good natural source of protein. Some fish are lean protein, some have more fat. But even the fat itself can be beneficial, as the omega-3 fatty acids (more on those in a moment) can improve heart health and contribute to better-looking skin.
Fish are also nutrient-rich. Vitamin D, which helps with mood and calcium absorption, is found in many species and especially popular ones like salmon, tuna, and mackerel.
Vitamin B12 is another key ingredient found in fish (and this one is especially useful for anyone who doesn’t eat red meat, poultry, or dairy.) B12 is essential for forming red blood cells and for the proper functioning of the neurological system. Because it isn’t found in plants, the vitamin B12 needs to be added to foods artificially, or consumed from animal products.
This means that for many “pescatarians” (people who might not eat red meat or chicken, but do eat seafood) fish will become a significant source of this important dietary ingredient.
But what about the risks involved? Is it possible to eat too much fish? Or the wrong kind?
Heavy Metal: Which Fish Contains the Most Mercury?
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In the US, fish and seafood are monitored for quality and safety. However, there are a few factors that you want to watch out for.
The first is that fish is frequently high in mercury content. Mercury is a metal that can be poisonous if consumed in too large a quantity. King Mackerel, Ahi Tuna, and several other varieties have a high amount of mercury.
The two highest? Swordfish and shark, which outpace most other varieties.Exposure to mercury and other heavy metals has sometimes been linked to problems with motor function and brain development.
The connection between health problems and the mercury in fish is still being researched. However, the EPA has issued an advisory warning about this topic. It particularly advises caution for women who are pregnant or nursing, as the effects of mercury exposure can be more pronounced with young children.
Large fish are especially risky. The EPA has advised to avoid eating shark, tilefish, and swordfish in general. Overall consumption of fish should be limited to two average meals per week, and canned fish should be limited as much as possible.
Even so, most problems accumulate over long periods of time. Don’t worry if you have a few servings here or there… just don’t eat it every day if you can help it!
In the grand scheme of things, fish is almost always more “healthy” than “health risk.” One of the great advantages is explained next: the amazing health powers of Omega-3’s.
Supercharge Your System with Omega-3s
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If you regularly follow health news, blogs, or anything talking about nutrition, you’ve probably heard the term “Omega-3” at least once. Usually, it’s referred to as something good that you should be consuming. But what are Omega-3s? And what do they have to do with the best fish to eat for your health?
Omega-3s are fatty acids that are commonly talked about as being “healthy fats.” They’ve been linked to fighting depression and obesity, as well as improving brain function and inflammation.
And to top it off, Omega-3s are great for heart health. They can lower the amount of plaque buildup in your arteries. If you consume a healthy amount, Omega-3s will lower your triglyceride levels (thereby lowering the likelihood of a heart attack.) We think that’s a pretty sweet extra benefit.
The human body needs both Omega-3s and their cousins Omega-6s, which are more often found in plants and plant-based oils. Ideally, these should be consumed in equal amounts, but unfortunately, the typical American diet is hugely imbalanced here. The typical American consumes 5-6 times more Omega-6s.
Salmon, trout, mackerel and tuna are all loaded with Omega-3s, which is lucky as they are popular and fairly easy to find in most supermarkets. Cooking them lightly, with a minimum of added oil, will get you back to a healthy balance between your Omega-6s and Omega-3s.
If you want to boost your intake and don’t have time to prepare fish, another option is to consume fish oil tablets, which will give you an extra dose of the healthy fats. Of course, we prefer a good plate of trout or salmon.
So now that you know some of the main bonuses of adding fish regularly to your diet, what are some of the best types to eat?
Best Fish to Eat for Health #1: Trout
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Trout is a commonly available type of fish, quite healthy, and one of the best fish to eat in terms of its environmental impact. In many cases, farmed fish is preferable, because it lowers the risk of disease among the fish.
Trout farmed in the US is strictly controlled, and the methods use cause it to have lower levels of mercury. It also contains roughly 20 grams of protein for a 100 gram (3.5 oz) serving.
For those of you counting calories, that’s 20 grams of protein for 190 calories, which is a good ratio if you’re looking for natural high protein, low-calorie foods (a serving of trout also provides more than a daily dose of both Omega-3s and vitamin B12.)
Trout has a mild nutty flavor and can be prepared simply with lemon and herbs. The key here is to make sure to avoid canned, smoked, or heavily oily or fried trout, which will introduce unhealthy ingredients into your diet.
We like it baked. This mouthwatering recipe from Kitchen Swagger is both easy to prepare and to clean up, and takes only a few ingredients to bring out the full flavor of the fish.
Best Fish to Eat for Health #2: Salmon
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There are many types of salmon on the market: Atlantic, Coho, Sockeye, Chinook, Pink Salmon… the list is long and the price and availability will depend on what’s in season. However, when it comes to health, all types of salmon share certain common health benefits.
For one thing, they all contain high levels of Omega-3s to improve heart health (farmed salmon can sometimes contain less of these, but they all will still have some). If you can find it, try for wild-caught salmon, as it can also be more flavorful.
Like trout, salmon has roughly 20 grams of protein in a 100-gram serving (if it’s the Alaskan variety. Sockeye and coho can contain a little more).
That’s typically about 200 calories. If you’re looking to lower calories and boost protein intake, sockeye is leaner and offers 25 grams of protein for as few as 130 calories.
You’ll also get plenty of vitamin D and B12, as well as Selenium for your metabolism.
The best fish to eat for health depends a bit on your goals. But especially with sockeye and coho, you can lower calories and heighten protein, while taking advantage of all the nutrients that fish contain. So if your health goals include both adding muscle and watching your waistline, salmon is a fantastic addition to your diet.
At a glance, here’s what you need to know about the different types of salmon:
Chinook (or “King” Salmon) is big, sometimes weighing well over 100 pounds. It’s the richest and fattiest of the types of salmon commonly available. Because of its buttery texture it is highly valued and often fetches a high price.
Coho, also known as “Silver” salmon, is usually available in the fall, and has a milder flavor. It’s very good grilled whole, as it is smaller in size, usually just around 20 pounds.
Sockeye has a bright red color and is the lowest in fat. The taste is full and very “seafood”-like, so for those who enjoy a stronger flavor of the fish, this is one of the best choices.
Pink salmon, or “Humpback” salmon, is smaller, light-colored, and low in fat. The flavor is very light as well, and it is often the variety one will encounter in canned salmon.
Salmon can be steamed, baked, or prepared any number of ways. But we especially like it grilled.
This recipe for grilled salmon from Simply Recipes shows how to marinade the fish ahead of time, which will give the entire cut of fish a full and delicious flavor.
Best Fish to Eat for Health #3: Halibut
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While trout and salmon can often have strong fish flavors, halibut is a good choice for those who want the nutritional benefits of seafood, but without that “fishy” taste.
Halibut is also strong in potassium, an ingredient that promotes heart health and lower blood pressure. If you’re looking to lower the blood pressure as well as get more fish into your diet? This is the one for you.
Plus, like other fish, halibut contains Vitamin D and enough Omega-3s for a full day. On top of that the fat content with halibut is on the lower end of the spectrum, which makes it more appealing for those looking to follow a low-fat diet.
The fish also contains plenty of Selenium and Vitamin B12, making it a well-rounded and low-fat protein source.
But what’s the best way to cook it? This fish is a little different in that its tougher texture actually gives a chef a few more options.
Often found in the waters off Alaska, halibut has a firm texture, and a mild flavor that lends itself to cooking methods that may be too harsh for softer fish. Marinating and then pan-searing the fish is a popular method, as this will lock in the flavor of the marinade.
Halibut can also be slow-cooked in a stew or chowder. The firmer consistency of the fish allows it to withstand the longer cooking times that would cause another sort of fish to fall apart.
This Fisherman’s Stew from the New York Times recipe site is a classic example of what you can do with halibut that you can’t do with salmon or tuna. The recipe calls for halibut, tilapia, or cod, but we think halibut is the best option here. (The recipe loaded with flavor and healthy veggies, too.)
For ecological purposes, Pacific and Alaskan halibut is preferable to Atlantic, as the Atlantic halibut populations have been hit harder by overfishing.
Best Fish to Eat for Health #4: Cod
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Cod is a staple food that has been fished in the Atlantic for centuries. Like halibut, it has a firm, white, meaty texture, which lends itself to cooking up in a stew or a sauce.
Cod’s highlights include its high content of niacin and B-12. We’ve already talked about B-12, but niacin (also known as vitamin B-3) is another important nutrient for heart health. The vitamin is necessary for turning food into energy, and it helps combat high triglyceride levels.
So this is another good fish to use in similar ways to halibut. The mild flavor will attract those who don’t want a strong seafood flavor, and it can be baked, grilled, roasted, or steamed.
Cod can be used to help reduce visceral fat, so it’s a great choice if you’re looking to shed a little body weight amidst all the other health benefits.
There are quite a few excellent cod recipes you can find… even after just a little bit of searching. It’s so widely used and so versatile that you can prepare it in a way that will satisfy even the pickiest eater.
But, because we’re talking about the health benefits here, we wanted to find something that was simple and healthy. We especially like this recipe from Healthy Recipes Blogs.
There’s a little bit of butter, but only a little, and the recipe is easy to make. And the recipe can also be adjusted to use halibut instead (a little versatility will go a long way if you’re looking to incorporate more seafood into your diet!).
Try incorporating more cod into your diet when you might typically go for red meat. As fish go, it’s filling and will be much better for the waistline.
Best Fish to Eat for Health #5: Tuna
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Tuna is one of the most commonly consumed fish options in the country. Most of us grew up with the canned variety, so we’re familiar with tuna salad in sandwiches. But the fish can be used for more than just an easy lunch.
Pan-seared Ahi Tuna is one dish that has become very popular in recent years. Tuna is also extremely popular in Japan, and is a favorite option in sushi, as one will frequently find Yellowfin and Albacore here.
A 100 gram serving of Albacore or Skipjack tuna will have about 22-23 grams of protein and only 100 calories.
One downside of tuna is that this large fish is listed as “moderate” for its mercury content. Not as high as shark or swordfish, certainly, but it contains enough that overconsumption is not advisable.
If eating a lot of tuna, it’s generally a good idea to look for Skipjack (sometimes called “chunk light” on canned tuna). For one thing, the Skipjack variety is plentiful, and not as endangered as other species (like Bluefin tuna, which is being overfished). For another, Skipjack contains less mercury than other types of tuna.
If you’re a fan of canned tuna, you’ll also want to check and make sure you get the kind that’s packed in water, instead of oil. This will reduce the fat content.
For this popular fish, we’ve included a couple recipes. First of all, we have this healthy tuna salad recipe from Tori Avery, which incorporates some of the best features of the Mediterranean diet: fish, veggies, and herbs.
If you’re looking for a low-fat way to eat tuna, this recipe from whfoods.org is a quick and incredibly healthy way of preparing the fish.
Best Fish to Eat for Health #6: Mackerel
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First the bad news. Mackerel is a fatty fish.
The good news? These are healthy fats.
That means loads of Omega-3s. If boosting your Omega-3 intake is on top of your list, then mackerel is a terrific option (mackerel is also high in B-12.)
A 100-gram serving of mackerel will usually have about 21 grams of protein and 260 calories. You might notice that this is about the same ratio of protein to serving size, but more calories, due to the fat content.
Atlantic or Spanish mackerel are smaller than some varieties, and this means that they’re on the lower end in terms of the amount of mercury they contain.
From a culinary perspective, mackerel is more like cod and halibut in that it’s a firm, white fish that can be cooked in a variety of ways. However (unlike cod and halibut) mackerel has a stronger seafood flavor, which can be a good or bad thing, depending on your point of view.
Ecologically, mackerel is a low-impact choice. The fish congregate in schools, so they are generally caught in a way that minimizes accidentally catching other creatures in the process.
Fishers don’t have to churn the ocean floor (as they do with some bottom-dwelling fish) so the habitat destruction is also minimal, and mackerel repopulate quickly. So if finding an eco-friendly choice is important to you, this fish is one of your absolute best picks.
Mackerel can be prepared simply. This Broiled Spanish-style recipe is in keeping with the themes of the Mediterranean diet, and is easily paired with vegetables or a healthy salad.
Which Type of Fish Should I NOT Eat?
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We’ve already talked about the problems that can come from eating fish too high in mercury levels. But there are three specific varieties which, for one reason or another, are best to avoid altogether.
Bluefin Tuna is a very popular variety of fish… and that’s the problem. The overfishing of this particular type has made it an endangered species, along with pandas, blue whales, and other animals at heightened risk of extinction.
The World Wildlife Fund has urged a reduction in consumption so that the remaining population of bluefin will have time to regrow, but the challenge is considerable. A single fish can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. They’re big fish, but… that’s some serious money for just one catch.
The net result is that bluefin tuna are regarded as a delicacy, and illegal fishing is common in order to bring in even a few of the highly sought-after fish.
Still, time is running out. If there are to be any remaining for future generations, consumers will have to cut back on their intake.
Chilean Sea Bass
This is another fish that has been hugely popular in recent years, with some noticeable environmental impact. The fish used to be called the Patagonia Toothfish, but was “rebranded” by seafood marketers in an attempt to make it sound more appetizing.
The dish became quite the rage in restaurants, and for a while it seemed like you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing Chilean Sea Bass on the specials list. However, the methods used to catch the cold water fish often wind up snaring large numbers of birds and other animals, as well as damaging the sea floor.
In addition, these large fish, like sharks and swordfish, contain high mercury levels. So it’s both ecologically troublesome and has higher than normal mercury levels.
The Environmental Defense Fund lists Mahi-Mahi as one of the least eco-friendly fish on the planet. The problem is with the way it’s harvested, which causes damage to turtle and shark populations. Some fishers do take care to avoid careless fishing, but it’s best to research this fish before you buy, if you are concerned about the environmental impact.
Catch of the Day: How Much and How Often to Eat Fish?
In the end, pretty much any fish you eat will be preferable to deep-fried or fast food… even the “less healthy” stuff. But even if you know the best fish to eat for health, how much of it should you be eating?
Depending on your caloric needs, this amount can increase or decrease somewhat. The EPA advises pregnant and nursing women to avoid high mercury content.
For most other people, the American Heart Association suggests aiming for: about two servings of fish per week.
So there it is. Two servings per week, preferably of trout, salmon, or any of the other fish from our list. You’ll get a good boost of lean protein, but it won’t be so much that the mercury content is likely to become a serious problem.
The AHA is primarily concerned with heart health, but we think that’s a good place to start. All those extra Omega-3s will really add up in the long run, especially if you use low-fat methods of cooking your fish.
Two full servings should get you through the week just swimmingly.