Americans are eating more fish, but still not enough

This week is all about turkey. But year round, Americans are making room on their plates for more fish and other seafood.

We ate an average of 15.5 pounds of it in 2015, continuing a three-year rise, says a recent report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

But here’s the catch: That’s roughly one 4-ounce serving each week, or half the 8 ounces recommended for most adults in U.S. dietary guidelines. The American Heart Association also urges adults to eat two fish meals a week.

A fish-rich diet lowers the risk of dying from heart disease and may help with weight control. It’s also good for early brain development, which is why pregnant and breastfeeding women should aim for 8 to 12 ounces a week, according to draft advice from the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Fish are a package of nutrients that really don’t exist anywhere else,” says Tom Brenna, a professor of nutrition and chemistry at Cornell University. He sat on the 2015 U.S. dietary guidelines panel and is on the board of the Seafood Nutrition Partnership, a non-profit group backed by the seafood industry.

Those nutrients include protein, selenium, vitamin D, vitamin B-12 and, perhaps most important, omega-3 fats, which boost heart and brain health. Other sources of omega-3 fats, such as walnuts and vegetable oils, do not pack the same punch. Neither do omega-3 supplements.

“To think you can just break open an omega-3 supplement over a hot fudge sundae and get the same benefits is wishful thinking,” says Alice Lichtenstein, vice chair of the dietary guidelines panel and a professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University.

Yet just 10% of adults eat enough fish, according the Department of Agriculture. One big reason, according to consumer surveys: People say they don’t like it very much.

“Children grow up and think they don’t like seafood because they have never eaten it,” says Lynsee Fowler, communications manager for the National Fisheries Institute, a non-profit seafood industry group.

Dawn Jackson Blatner, a registered dietitian in Chicago and author of the upcoming book The Superfood Swap, says she hears that from clients all time — and she can relate. “I didn’t eat fish growing up and I thought I didn’t like it,” she says. “Now I eat salmon for breakfast.”

Fish also can be pricey, though many popular choices cost about as much as chicken and beef.  Some, including canned tuna and canned salmon, are relative bargains, Blatner says.

But it’s not just about taste and cost. Consumers also may fear:

Mercury contamination:

Fish do contain mercury, a toxin, because our waterways do. But some fish — the biggest, longest-living predators — contain much more than others. And Americans mostly eat the lower-mercury types, including shrimp, salmon, tilapia and pollock.

The draft FDA and EPA guidelines say young children and women who might get pregnant, are pregnant or are breastfeeding should eat a variety of seafood but avoid four high-mercury types: tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, shark, swordfish and king mackerel. They also say these groups should eat no more than 6 ounces a week of white albacore tuna — though that stance is controversial, with some groups saying all tuna should be on the “avoid” list and others saying the limit is unnecessary.

Environmental damage:

Some fish species are in states of depletion or are caught in ways that harm other species. But U.S fisheries have made considerable progress in ending overfishing and rebuilding fish stocks, with some exceptions, says the watchdog group Natural Resources Defense Council.

The group says consumers should favor American-caught seafood, choosing locally caught varieties when possible. It also helps to ask restaurants and retailers to offer responsible choices, the group says.

Frequently-updated seafood buying guides are available in apps and on websites from the Environmental Defense Fund and Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Farmed fish:

Much of the fish we buy today is farmed, not caught in the wild. While conditions at some fish farms have raised concerns in the past, those conditions have improved, Brenna says.

And when it comes to nutrition and levels of contaminants, including mercury and dioxins, farmed and wild fish appear to be about the same, the U.S. dietary guidelines say. “Some farmed fish have more omega-3 than wild fish,” Brenna says.

The unknown:

Generations of chicken roasters and burger flippers may not know what to do with a tilapia fillet. But “it’s not something to be scared of,” Lichtenstein says. “It’s a matter of finding out what you like and going with it.”

You can start by trying the recipes you like at restaurants or friends’ homes, she and Blatner suggest. But there’s no reason to make it complicated. Blatner says any fish fillet can be baked for 8-10 minutes for each inch of thickness in a 400-degree oven. If you like it crunchy, she suggests you coat it in some finely chopped nuts.  Frying, of course, is not as healthy. Many people will find broiled seafood is their favorite, Blatner says: “I tell people it’s just upside grilling.”

Americans’ top ten seafood choices, according to the National Fisheries Institute:
1.    Shrimp
2.    Salmon
3.    Tuna
4.    Tilapia
5.    Alaska pollock
6.    Pangasius
7.    Cod
8.    Crab
9.    Catfish
10.  Clams


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