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Why You Should Be Eating More Fish

Barton Seaver

October 01, 2019

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Barton Seaver headshot photo by Greta Rybus
Photo: Greta Rybus

The James Beard Foundation is guided by our mantra of “good food for goodTM,” which encompasses all aspects of the food system, from safe workplaces, to culinary innovation, to the environmental impact of the methods used to grow and catch our food. Below, sustainable seafood expert and Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change alum Barton Seaver kicks off National Seafood Month by explaining why he's focused on getting more people to eat more seafood, period. Seaver, who's cooking at the Beard House on October 16, has just released a cookbook, The Joy of Seafood, designed to make home cooks more comfortable with preparing fish as part of their everyday diet.

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A curious tradition in the U.S. is the calendar of marketed “food months.” October alone is supposed to be chili, popcorn, cookies, and pizza, not to mention “Go hog wild—Eat Country Ham Month.” While I am a fan of all these fine foods, it is another of October’s titles that calls me to the stove (and pulpit): National Seafood Month.

I have spent my entire professional life focused on sustainable seafood. My career began in restaurant kitchens, and I’ve since charted a course taking me into the environmental, media, public health, and corporate sustainability fields. Learning through all of these varied channels, I’ve distilled my efforts sustaining seafood into a singular goal: I want more people to eat more seafood across all demographics. Read on for two of the many reasons why.

Environment: plant-based foods should account for the majority of our diets, but animal proteins are and will continue to be an important component of our culture and daily communion. When we eat seafood it is wise to seek out products that have earned a mark of approval (such as SeafoodWatch, ASC, BAP, MSC), but we must also consider how we use seafood and measure it against like products. It is a center-of-the-plate ingredient, just like meat and poultry. So when deciding what’s for dinner, let’s view our options in their full context.

In a world of declining resources and increasing human population, we must seek efficiencies in how we grow our food. Producing seafood is often more efficient than producing land animals. Chickens, lambs, pigs, and cows grow dense bones to withstand gravity and atmospheric pressure and they expend energy keeping their blood warm. Fish are cold-blooded and they float, meaning they possess a physiology that gives them a fin up in the sustainability equation. When compared across five important sustainability metrics: freshwater use, greenhouse gas emissions, antibiotic use, land-use alteration, and feed conversion ratio, seafood most often measures as most efficient. When choosing among sustainable animal proteins, start with the category that swims to the top.

Human health: in the U.S., we suffer an epidemic of health issues with seven out of 10 premature deaths linked to diet and lifestyle choices. To me, that’s great news! If we’ve made ourselves (and our environments) sick by the choices we make for dinner, then by making different choices we can heal and restore. For example, research shows that reducing our consumption of red meat and consuming 2 servings of omega-3–rich seafood a week can reduce deaths from heart disease by 36 percent. Older adults with high seafood consumption live an average of 2.2 years longer than those who don’t eat seafood.  

But it’s not limited to reducing mortality—eating more seafood can have benefits throughout our lives. Pregnant moms who eat seafood twice a week have babies with higher IQ and improved brain and eye development. Children who eat seafood have improved attention span and fewer adverse behavioral outcomes. And as we age, seafood can help protect against cognitive decline. Eating seafood is so important that the three “S’s” of public health have been designated as: wear your seatbelt, don’t smoke, and eat seafood. 

Daunted by the thought of adding more seafood into your daily diet? Here are a few practical tips from my new cookbook, The Joy of Seafood, to get you started:

  • Don’t just shop sustainably—eat sustainably. A four-ounce portion of cooked seafood in one meal is all that our bodies need. Larger portions may be satisfying, but more than we need is exactly that—more than we need.
  • Diversity = sustainabilityeat a variety of seafood, not just the familiar species. For too long we’ve told fishermen and oceans only what we are willing to eat, rather than ask of them what they are able to sustainably supply.
  • Make a habit of eating clams, mussels, oysters, scallops, and small silver fish like anchovies, herring, and sardines. These are all filter feeders and extremely efficient sources of food.  
  • It’s not just the fresh seafood counter! Modern fresh-frozen seafood offers excellent options. Innovative processing facilities freeze seafood at super-low temperatures often within hours of it being pulled from the sea. Freezing used to be applied to stop seafood from going bad, but now it is a means of capturing pristine quality. Fresh-frozen, or frozen-fresh seafood can have a reduced transportation footprint, and as it can be stored for months (years, even) until the day it is needed it helps to decrease waste.
  • Canned fish is an affordable, healthy, and very often sustainable option. There’s great variety of species beyond just tuna. Anchovies with roasted peppers and mint anyone?
  • Plan ahead—slow-roast some fillets for dinner tonight, preparing a few extra portions to chill and mix with panko, mayonnaise, and lemon juice to make fish cakes to serve another day. (And yes, cooked seafood will be delicious for several days.)

Of course, there are significant environmental challenges specific to seafood that we must continue to address in order to be capable of increasing overall consumption. Learn more about those challenges and how chefs and diners can help turn the tide. Sustainable seafood ultimately means using seafood to sustain humans; a long term reciprocal relationship in which both parties thrive.

As far as food months go, it’s certainly fun to go “hog wild” for cured ham, but I’d ask you to consider a dive deep into the delicious abundance of flavors, textures, colors, and stories that seafood has to offer. Sustainable seafood is an ethic best championed through participation, and so as we kick off National Seafood Month, let’s commit ourselves to eating more seafood, more often, in every month and year ahead.

Get a taste of Barton’s cooking alongside chefs Ned Bell and Danielle Leoni at the Three Cheers for Seafood dinner on October 16th at the James Beard House.

Check out Barton’s newest book The Joy of Seafood.

Can't make it to the Beard House? Make Barton's recipe for anchovies with roasted peppers and mint.

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Barton Seaver is director at the Healthy and Sustainable Food Program at the Center For Health and the Global Environment at Harvard School of Public Health. A lauded author, chef, and public speaker, Seaver has made it his life’s work to improve our relationship to the earth and the ocean. Learn more about his work at bartonseaver.org.

Learn more about JBF's sustainable seafood advocacy through our Impact programs.