How healthy is eating fish?

NUTRISPEAK by Vesanto Melina MS, RD

Portrait of Vesanto Melina
• Fish has long been widely regarded as a health food, but that perspective is changing, which isn’t entirely surprising given we use the oceans, rivers and waterways that feed into oceans as dumping grounds for every imaginable toxin. Whereas 15 or 20 years ago, fish and fish oil supplements were linked with health benefits for people with certain disease conditions, recent studies show no reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease or death. Fish oil supplements were also used in studies on prostate cancer, but that too has come into question. In order to avoid prostate cancer, it now appears prudent for men to avoid large doses of long chain omega-3s, whether from fatty fish or supplements.

Ethics and environment: Fish stocks are being depleted and where ocean fishing is carried out, the bycatch has tragic consequences for many other forms of sea life. Fish farming further complicates the situation, with damaging effects on wild fish.

Fish as intelligent, sentient beings: Research from Australia indicates the perception and cognitive abilities of fish often match or exceed those of other vertebrates, including primates and household pets. It also appears their brains are more similar to the human brain than previously believed. Fish can recognize other fish, develop complex traditions and perform multiple, complex tasks simultaneously. And fish have the same neurological system as other vertebrates; it may be obvious to anyone who has fished that they show a strong, full bodied dislike to having a hook through their cheek and to suffocating.

Direct sources of long chain omega-3s: While our bodies can make the long chain omega-3 fatty acids – such as DHA – that are commonly associated with fatty fish, there are some stages of life or disease conditions for which a direct source could be beneficial. Research shows 200 to 300 mg of DHA may be associated with improved visual and cognitive development for infants. Fortunately, DHA supplements are an option and these can be based on the same vegan biological source that fish use to get their DHA: microalgae. In fact, with a vegan DHA supplement, one can be assured the source isn’t accompanied by the mercury present in so many fish. It is not certain that child-bearing women require direct sources of DHA, as their body’s production is greatly increased at this stage of life.

Others who may possibly benefit from a direct source are those with type 2 diabetes as their ability to form DHA may be reduced. For sources, simply do an online search for “vegan DHA.”

Cleaner alternatives: We can easily get the omega-3 fatty acid that is a known essential – alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) – from plant-based sources, including walnuts, chia seeds, ground flaxseed, flaxseed oil and balance (3, 6, 9) oils. Our body converts ALA into the longer chain forms EPA and DHA at moderate levels. We may not want an excess of DHA floating around in our bloodstream as it is easily oxidized and may cause health problems. For those who like the taste, texture and protein of fish, check out Gardein’s new Golden Fishless Filets in your supermarket’s freezer section.

For more information on these topics, see the award winning Becoming Vegan: Express Edition and (hot off the press) Becoming Vegan: Comprehensive Edition, both by Davis and Melina. Vesanto Melina: and For consultations, call 604-882-6782.

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