5 of the Healthiest Fish to Eat—and 5 to Limit
Fish are a lean, healthy source of protein—and the oily kinds, such as salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel, deliver those heart- and brain-healthy omega-3 fats. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends adults eat 8 ounces of seafood per week (based on a 2,000-calorie diet).
There's also concern about the environment—and choosing seafood that's sustainable. So, if you often stand at the fish counter a little perplexed and wondering what's good for yourself and the planet, we can help. We've done research to find the healthiest fish to eat when it comes to sustainability, mercury content and nutritional benefits.
5 of the Healthiest Fish to Eat
1. Atlantic Mackerel
This species is a fast-growing fish, meaning it can repopulate easily and handle higher amounts of fishing. The gear used to catch types of Atlantic mackerel is efficient and not likely to cause major habitat destruction, another reason this guy is an ocean-friendly choice. This strong-flavored fish is high in heart-healthy omega-3s, a good source of protein—delivering about 16 grams in a 3-ounce fillet—and pairs well with bold seasonings.
Pictured recipe: Roasted Salmon with Lentil "Caviar"
2. Salmon, Wild-Caught (including canned)
Wild-caught salmon is low in contaminants, including mercury and lead. And some salmon, like pink and sockeye, from well-managed fisheries worldwide (particularly in Alaska), also tick the box for being lower in mercury and lead. To give you an idea of how well-managed Alaska's salmon fisheries are, consider this: biologists are posted at river mouths to count how many wild fish return to spawn. If the numbers begin to dwindle, the fishery is closed before it reaches its limits, as was done recently with some Chinook fisheries. This close monitoring, along with strict quotas and careful management of water quality, means Alaska's wild-caught salmon are both healthier (they pack more than 1,500 mg of omega-3s per 3-ounce serving and carry few contaminants) and more sustainable than just about any other salmon fishery.
Buying salmon in a can is a more affordable way to get this healthy seafood in your diet. Canned salmon is not just a great source of omega-3 fats, it is one of the best sources of nondairy calcium. A 3-ounce serving has 241 mg (most adults need between 1,000 to 1,200 mg per day). Canned wild salmon is typically sockeye or pink from Alaska, but you'll want to check the label to make sure.
3. Sardines, Wild-Caught (including canned)
The tiny, inexpensive sardine is making it onto many lists of superfoods, and for good reason. It packs over 800 mg of omega-3 fats per 3 ounces and is one of the very few foods that's naturally high in vitamin D. It's also one of few foods naturally high in calcium, packing 25% of your daily needs per serving. Other fish, like herring, pilchards and sprat, are in the same family as sardines.
Quick to reproduce, Pacific sardines have rebounded from both overfishing and a natural collapse in the 1940s. Get a taste for sardines in our delicious Lemon-Garlic Sardine Fettuccine that even sardine skeptics might enjoy.
Pictured Recipe: Trout in Sage Brown Butter with Hearts of Palm Salad
4. Rainbow Trout (and some types of Lake)
Rainbow trout (also referred to as steelhead trout), is one of the best fish to eat when it's farmed in the U.S. or indoor recirculating tanks, according to Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. Trout ranks just under canned pink salmon when it comes to omega-3 content and is a good source of potassium, selenium and vitamin B6 while offering more than a day's worth of vitamin B12.
Lake trout is a great alternative when it's sourced from the right places. Seafood Watch advises buying lake trout caught in the Great Lakes, specifically Lake Superior's Michigan and Minnesota waters, while avoiding trout that was caught from Wisconsin's Lake Superior waters.
Herring is a Nordic Diet staple—it has a higher omega-3 content than sardines, trout and mackerel at over 1,300 mg per 3 ounces. It's also an excellent source of vitamin D and selenium. You'll typically find herring that has been canned, cured or smoked on restaurant menus, but it can also be eaten fresh.
Seafood Watch recommends buying U.S. Atlantic herring caught with purse seines or California herring caught with set gill nets. If you haven't befriended your local fishmonger, they will help you figure out the sourcing methods for your desired fish.
5 Fish to Limit
A number of environmental organizations have advocated taking several fish off the menu. The large fish listed below are just five examples EatingWell chose to highlight: popular fish that are both depleted and, in many cases, carry higher levels of mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Mercury and PCBs are referred to as "legacy pollutants" and have been found to cause serious health issues in humans. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has also posted health advisories on some of these fish.
1. Bluefin Tuna
The World Wildlife Fund put the bluefin tuna on its list of endangered species, and Seafood Watch warns their populations are depleted and overfished. Bluefin have high levels of mercury and can be high in PCBs, so EDF recommends eating no more than 1 serving per month of this fish.
2. Orange Roughy
This fish lives a long life but is slow to reproduce, making it vulnerable to overfishing. The EDF explains that orange roughy has extremely long lives, up to 149 years in some cases. This also means it has high levels of mercury, causing EDF to issue a health advisory.
3. Salmon, Farmed in Pens (Atlantic)
Most farmed salmon are raised in tightly packed, open-net pens often rife with parasites and diseases that threaten the wild salmon trying to swim by to their ancestral spawning waters. Open-net-farmed salmon are often given antibiotics to combat diseases, and their food and waste pollute the ocean. Freshwater-farmed salmon have earned a "Best Choice" status from Seafood Watch and some open-net systems are rated as "Good Alternatives" (see more salmon recommendations from Seafood Watch). There is hope that consumer pressure will encourage more farms to continue to adopt better practices.
4. Mahi-Mahi (Costa Rica, Guatemala & Peru)
Imported, longline mahi-mahi, or dolphinfish, is rated as one of the least eco-friendly fish by the Environmental Defense Fund. There is concern about bycatch, including sea turtles, seabirds and sharks, getting tangled in the fishing gear when mahi-mahi is fished. However, mahi-mahi caught in the U.S. and Ecuador with troll lines is ranked under "Good Alternative" by Seafood Watch and is the better choice if you're hankering for this particular fish.
5. Halibut, Wild-Caught (Atlantic)
This fish grows and matures slowly (living as long as 50 years), so it is susceptible to overfishing. Consequently, because of the depletion of Atlantic halibut populations, the U.S. prohibits commercial harvest of this breed, found in the North Atlantic Ocean, and Seafood Watch rates it "Avoid." Pacific halibut is a good alternative, as it comes from well-managed fisheries with little habitat damage and low rates of other marine life being caught as bycatch.