The health benefits of eating seafood, plus the healthiest ways to eat it.

Brierley Horton, M.S., R.D.
April 30, 2020
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You've probably heard the recommendation—put out by the government, via the Dietary Guidelines for Americans—that we should all be eating two servings of seafood a week. Based on that guidance, you'd assume it's healthy, right? Well, it is (even canned tuna is healthier than you might think)! But lots of us have trouble eating enough seafood. Here's a closer look at what seafood is, why it's so good for you, what to watch out for, plus the healthiest ways to eat seafood.

First, what exactly is seafood?

And how does it compare to fish? "Seafood includes any form of food from the waters, including fish, shellfish such as mollusks and crustaceans, and even sea vegetables like seaweed and algae. And, at Seafood Nutrition Partnership, that definition must also take into account the sustainability of the food supply and the waters that provide life. Short answer: It's any way you can get the good nutrients, vitamins and essential omega-3s that come from the sea," says Valerie Agyeman, RDN, Seafood Nutrition Partnership's in-house dietitian and communications manager. Here are our top tips for buying fish and shellfish that meet your standards.

Seafood includes:

  • Fish, including salmon, cod, tuna, haddock and more
  • Shrimp
  • Scallops
  • Crabs
  • Lobster
  • Mussels
  • Clams

What makes seafood good for you?

Seafood is touted for and mostly recommended because of its omega-3 fat content—namely DHA and EPA (which alone have been linked with various health benefits, and also have anti-inflammatory properties). And while those fats—yes—are ultra-important and über-healthy, it's not just the omega-3-rich seafood that gets health accolades.

All seafood delivers notable nutrients: many types deliver calcium and vitamin D. Vitamin D is a nutrient that we typically need more of, and is hard to get from food (here are 6 foods to help you get more vitamin D in your diet). Plus, seafood is also considered a high-quality protein—much like eggs, meat, poultry and dairy.

There are also excellent science-backed health benefits of eating seafood.

The health benefits of eating seafood

You'll live longer.

Eating seafood two to three times per week can cut your risk of dying prematurely from any health-related cause, according to two different studies. Other, more recent, research suggests that our low seafood eating habits contribute to so-called preventable deaths.

It could fuel your happiness.

Research shows that people who regularly eat fish are 20% less likely to have depression. Another study, published in 2018 in Asia-Pacific Psychiatry, found that eating just one weekly serving of fish helped ward off depression.

Children may be smarter and healthier.

In a review of studies, published in December 2019, researchers concluded that children of mothers who ate the recommended 12 ounces of seafood a week when they were pregnant had significantly higher IQ scores. Even eating a mere 4 ounces a week helped.

When it comes to babies' health, a brand-new study, in a March 2020 issue of JAMA, found that mothers who ate fish one to three times a week while pregnant had children (assessed between 6 and 12 years old) with lower levels of inflammation and lower risk of metabolic syndrome.

What should you watch out for when eating seafood?

Mostly, just mercury. It's a neurotoxin that's in essentially all seafood—at some level or another. But typically, experts say that the benefits of eating seafood outweigh the risks.

For instance, some studies have found that benefits from seafood nutrients apparently negated even higher mercury levels in pregnant mothers when looking at later cognitive outcomes in their children. Still, it's important to know which seafood is highest in mercury—and, depending on your age or life stage—be mindful of how much of those species you eat. In general, larger fish have higher levels of mercury—think tilefish, shark, swordfish, albacore tuna and king mackerel. The USDA's Dietary Guidelines say to eat at least 8 ounces of seafood a week—choosing lower-mercury fish (salmon, shrimp, canned light tuna, tilapia, cod) and some omega-3-rich fish. Follow these guidelines and you should be fine.

Your seafood can also be more eco-friendly, depending on the type you choose, where it's from and how it's grown (wild or farmed). Many fish counters have labeling to help you make a more informed decision, but you can also check websites like Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch, the Marine Stewardship Council and The Safina Center to give you more information about the environmental and sustainability impact of the seafood you choose.

How seafood compares to other proteins

Here's the thing—we're not eating enough seafood. Only 1 in 10 consumers get the recommended two seafood servings a week, according to the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. And per the American Academy of Pediatrics, kids aren't either.

We need to up the ante, especially when you consider that you can get many of the same nutrients from seafood as you can from other animal proteins. For example, a tuna steak delivers nearly as much iron as a strip steak (a well-known good source of iron). Compared to a boneless, skinless chicken breast, a fillet of cod boasts more protein and fewer grams of fat. Then, of course, choose an oily fish, such as salmon, or shellfish like oysters, and you'll get omega-3 fats, which are harder to come by in other animal proteins.

Overall, aim to eat more seafood. But make it baked, broiled or poached seafood versus fried. Ounce for ounce, fried seafood can deliver three to four times as much saturated fat, and also a heftier number of calories.