The Seafood You Should and Should Not Be Eating for Your Health

Seafood describes a lot of critters that come from the water, not just the sea. It includes everything from shrimp and mollusks to crustaceans and all… Samantha Davis - May 4, 2022

Seafood describes a lot of critters that come from the water, not just the sea. It includes everything from shrimp and mollusks to crustaceans and all kinds of fish sourced from lakes, rivers, the ocean, and other waterways. Some are even farm raised. Science tells us that seafood is good for us because of the protein, healthy fats, and various vitamins and minerals. However, all types of seafood are not created equally when it comes to reaping the benefits and some types of seafood even expose you to microplastics and mercury. To get the benefits without the risk, it’s important to know what you’re doing when choosing, storing, and preparing seafood for yourself and your family.

Below, we’ll take a closer look at what you need to know to choose the best, most healthy seafood from your family. Since not all seafood is created equally when it comes to nutrition and benefits, we’ll look at what you should be eating (and what you should be avoiding) for your health. Some types of seafood are even high in mercury, full of microplastics or contaminated with other environmental pollution that makes it dangerous to eat too often. Additionally, we’ll take a look at how you should be choosing, storing, and preparing seafood to ensure you get the benefits without a lot of the risks.

Seafood has many health benefits, but you also should avoid overdoing it because of mercury content. Shutterstock.

1. Eat Seafood at Least Once a Week, But Don’t Overdo It

According to the FDA, the average person should consume at least 8 ounces of fish each week based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Eating fish once or twice per week has been shown to reduce the risk of sudden cardiac death by at least 50% and the risk of ischemic stroke by 14%. One study also showed that eating fish from safe sources at least four times per week reduced the risk of coronary artery disease by 22%, compared to people only eating seafood once a month. In addition to heart benefits, the omega fatty acids in fish prevent inflammation, reduce the risk of mental decline like Alzheimer’s and dementia, and decrease inflammation and flare-ups in chronic conditions like arthritis and dermatitis.

As with all good things, however, too much can have negative side effects if you over-do it. With seafood, it’s important to choose those that are high in beneficial Omega-3s and other nutrients. However, it’s important to consider where seafood is coming from, too. Fish take in oxygen and eat food from the water around them. With human waste polluting waterways, as well as runoff from storms full of pesticides and fertilizer ingredients, many fish absorb toxins from their environment. When you consume these fish, you’re also consuming all these toxins. This is why it’s important to know about where your seafood is coming from and to avoid eating too much.

As a general rule, larger fish contain more mercury and other toxins that smaller fresh fish. Shutterstock.

2. Know Which Types of Seafood Are Safest

If you are going to eat fish more than once per week, then you need to eat fish from safer, less polluted sources and with a lower mercury content. For pregnant women and children who eat fish, it’s best to only choose from the “safe” list provided by the FDA. These safer fish to eat include options like anchovy, catfish, flounder, oyster, black sea bass, Atlantic mackerel, Atlantic croaker, shrimp, salmon, tilapia, scallop, crab, cod, freshwater trout, canned light tuna, and sardines. Some other safe options include whiting, whitefish, squid, clam, haddock, sole, pollock, plaice, smelt, skate, shad, pickerel, American lobster, freshwater and ocean perch, mullet, herring, hake, and butterfish. These can be eaten as often as you’d like.

Generally, your lymphatic system and organs like your liver and kidneys work to flush toxins from your body, so trace amounts is okay (and normal) in seafood. For women who are pregnant or nursing, children, and people who are immunocompromised, however, it’s important to stick to the list of “good fish”. Some other okay choices include seatrout, snapper, monkfish, bluefish, grouper, mahi mahi, halibut, sheepshead, striped bass, Spanish mackerel, yellowfin tuna and white tuna, white croaker, Chilean sea bass, sablefish, rockfish, carp, and Tilefish from the Atlantic ocean, but these shouldn’t be eaten more than once or twice a week. The highest mercury content in seafood is found in bigeye tuna, shark, orange roughy, tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, swordfish, marlin, and king mackerel.

A single serving of salmon contains a full daily value of Omega 3 fatty acids. Shutterstock.

3. Eat Salmon for Omega-3 Benefits

Salmon is arguably one of the most healthy seafood varieties that you can eat for your health. It’s a fatty fish, so it’s especially high in Omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s have many heart-related benefits and fight against free radicals in the body. They raise “good” cholesterol and lower “bad” cholesterol, improving total cholesterol levels. This improves heart health and prevents hardening of the arteries. Additionally, eating enough Omega-3 fatty acids reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and sudden death from heart attack or stroke. Wild salmon has 1.8 grams of Omega-3 fatty acid, coming in only behind mackerel with 2.5 grams, which is still a healthy choice but may have more mercury content than salmon.

As only 2-4 grams of Omega-3 are recommended for people with poor heart health, salmon is a great place to start. In addition to the benefits from Omega-3s, salmon is a great source of protein and is low in unhealthy fats. It’s also high in many vitamins and minerals, so many that it is considered a superfood. It contains the antioxidant selenium, minerals like potassium, zinc, and phosphorous, and most of the B vitamins. Furthermore, canned salmon offers all the same benefits as fresh salmon, but it is lower in mercury than canned tuna. While salmon does give a healthy dose of fatty acids, some other Omega-3-rich fish types include canned, light tuna, sardine, herring, cod, lake trout, and Atlantic mackerel.

Shrimp is a low-calorie, high protein food that is quick and easy to cook. Shutterstock.

4. Eat Shrimp for a Quick, Low-Calorie Source of Protein

Shrimp is another seafood that packs a nutritional punch, with 20 grams of protein in a 3-ounce serving and just 84 calories. Nutritional benefits aside, shrimp is really easy to cook. You can leave the tails on or off and cook for about 2 minutes per side (depending on the size of the shrimp) and whether they are thawed or frozen. You’ll know that it’s finished cooking when shrimp is With pre-cooked shrimp, you’ll know it’s done when it’s hot all the way through. If the shrimp start to curl up in the pan and make “O” shapes, then they are starting to overcook. Overcooked shrimp is tough, so you’ll want to avoid this.

Shrimp is also high in minerals like iron and zinc and it has 200 milligrams of Omega-3s. As an added benefit, it contains the antioxidant astaxanthin that fights inflammation through the body that causes conditions like heart disease and Alzheimer’s. Astaxanthin also improves the way the immune system functions and helps repair the cells, in addition to protecting them from damage further damage. It’s easy to incorporate shrimp into your diet, especially with how quickly they cook. Swap out chicken for shrimp in an alfredo, make shrimp tacos, throw them in a quesadilla, or use them to garnish soup or salad.

Atlantic Mackerel. Shutterstock.

5. Try Atlantic Mackerel for a Sustainable Source of Omega-3s

Atlantic mackerel is one of the best sources of Omega-3 fatty acids when it comes to seafood. While it isn’t as readily available as salmon, Atlantic mackerel does have more Omega-3 fatty acids in a 3-ounce serving. It contains an average of 2.5 grams of Omega-3s, which exceeds the recommended daily dose of 1.1 grams for women and 1.6 grams for men. While this is the recommended amount, having a little more a few days a week doesn’t hurt. Additionally, doctors recommend that people who have high cholesterol levels, inflammatory disease, or heart conditions eat somewhere between 2-4 grams each day for extra benefits.

In addition to Omega-3s, Atlantic mackerel contains high levels of CoQ10, a powerful antioxidant that protects your heart, helps reduce oxidative damage and signs of aging, and helps your body produce energy. Furthermore, Atlantic mackerel has as much iron as steak, more potassium than a banana, more selenium than chicken, and four times as much Vitamin B12 as salmon in just a five-ounce serving. Additionally, as Atlantic mackerel has a shorter lifespan and smaller size than salmon, populations grow faster. This makes it a more sustainable option and it is less likely to absorb toxins like PCBs from plastic and mercury from the water.

Smaller fish have a shorter lifespan. They are sustainable and generally contain less mercury and other toxins. Shutterstock.

6. Include Small, Fresh Fish in Your Diet

With fresh caught fish, some of the best sources are smaller options like sardines, herring, and anchovies. Small fish are very abundant in the wild, especially as they serve as a food source. Their small size allows populations to grow quickly and repopulate, especially when areas are not over-fished. Additionally, the abundance of these small fish makes them a very sustainable food source. Sustainability is a major issue in the fishing industry because of the high demand of fish. Even though farm-raised fish are a good option, they often don’t have the same benefits of wild caught fish because many are fed an unhealthy and unnatural diet.

Sticking with smaller fish is also a most healthy seafood choice because it ensures you aren’t consuming too much mercury or PCBs from plastic pollution. Smaller fish are at the bottom of the food chain in the wild. These small fish are eaten by medium fish and the medium fish are eaten by bigger fish and so on. Every time that one fish eats another, it also consumes all the mercury and other pollutants that it may have in its body and bloodstream. By eating the smaller fish that feed on algae instead of large, predatory fish like walleye and lake trout or bottom feeders like sea trout and striped bass, there’s a lower risk of eating contaminated fish.

Add Atlantic crab to soups, salads, and pasta for added protein and healthy fats. Shutterstock.

7. Eat Crab for Protein and Fatty Acids

Atlantic crab is among one of the best types of shellfish you can eat. Even though it’s most affordable when you can get it fresh during crab season, the benefits of this yummy seafood make it a great choice all year round. The nutrition of crab varies, but on average a 3-ounce serving has only 80-100 calories and most of these come from healthy fats and protein. It has around 16-20 grams of protein and contains around 350-400 milligrams of the fatty acids DHA and EPA. Like with salmon, this comes with benefits for the heart and brain. It also targets inflammation through the body, which may help with inflammatory conditions like arthritis.

One of the reasons many people don’t enjoy Atlantic crab is because of the cost. Using crab in recipes makes it much more affordable and filling. Add crab to pasta dishes or make a quesadilla, crab cake, or bisque. Cooked crab can also be added to the top of a salad or added with other seafood to make a seafood salad. At times when fresh crab is unavailable, you can also add canned crab to your diet. Canned crab is generally made from the fleshy part of blue crabs, so it isn’t as low in mercury as Atlantic crabs but it is still a good option to add to your diet once or twice a week.

Pay attention to local advisories to know how safe it is to eat fish caught in local streams and waterways. Shutterstock.

8. Be Wary of Seafood Caught by Friends and Family

There’s nothing quite like the satisfaction of catching, cleaning, and cooking your own fish. Often, growing your own fruits and vegetables, hunting, and fishing are all great, sustainable ways to feed your family. Unfortunately, the pollution found in many freshwater fishing areas like lakes, streams, ponds, and rivers makes consuming these fish risky if you aren’t sure how clean the water is. Pollution in these freshwater areas comes from storm runoff that drains into the water, which might contain chemicals, as well as contamination from factories. Farming is another source of pollution, since runoff contains pesticides and nutrients like phosphorous that are used in fertilizer. These remove oxygen from the water and make fish absorb more toxins as a result.

One resource that is helpful for finding out which wild caught fish are safe to eat is this list of advisories and contacts for the game and fishing industry. These advisories are issued when fish is known to have a high level of mercury or other contaminants. While you don’t have to avoid this seafood completely, you should limit yourself to one 3-4 ounce serving of these fish. Some of the most common fish you’ll find on this advisory list include larger carp, trout, perch, and catfish. Something else to keep in mind is that bigger fish have been alive longer, so they often contain more toxins than smaller fish. In cases where this is no recommendation, sticking to one serving per week is safest.

When canned and frozen fish are preserved properly, they have the same nutritional value as fresh fish. Shutterstock.

9. Buy Frozen or Canned When Needed to Make Fish More Accessible

Even though certain foods like fruits and vegetables can lose a little of their nutritional value by freezing them, the same isn’t true with fish. Fish is generally frozen while it’s still fresh. This locks in vitamins and minerals, preserves the texture of the protein, and ensures you’re still getting all those healthy fats. According to the National Fisheries Institute, frozen seafood is just as nutritional as fresh seafood. Buying fish frozen has advantages because you can buy it in bulk, it’s easier to store, and it helps you keep your freezer stocked even when fish is out of season. Additionally, you can save a little money by buying fish when it is in season and more affordable and keep it frozen until you’re ready to eat it.

When buying frozen seafood, look for ice crystals on the fish or in the packaging. Ice forms when food has been frozen for a long time. It could also indicate that the fish thawed a little and then it was refrozen. You should also avoid buying seafood if there’s damage to the packaging. Crushed or ripped corners or other damage could mean the fish has been exposed to air (and bacteria). Finally, be sure that the fish still smells fresh (rather than rancid or like ammonia) when you thaw it before cooking. It should also be frozen solid. Fish that is bendable when it’s frozen doesn’t have the same freshness or nutritional value and it could indicate that the fish has been compromised.

Skipjack tuna are smaller than other varieties and have a lower mercury content, so they’re much safer to eat. Shutterstock.

10. Choose the Right Kind of Tuna

Tuna is one of those fish that is available fresh or canned. The kind of tuna you eat (and where it lives) also really affects tuna’s mercury levels and how often it can be eaten safely. When it comes to canned tuna, it’s already cooked and can be used in pasta dishes, mixed into tuna salad, or used in a tuna patty. Light tuna (also called skipjack) is the best kind to eat because of its smaller size and low mercury content. Canned albacore or white tuna is still good because of it’s nutrients, but you should limit your intake to once or twice a week.

Fresh tuna steaks are another way that you can eat tuna. Generally, these are seasoned or marinated and then pan seared or grilled for just a few minutes. Most people eat them at a medium to medium-rare level of doneness. Unfortunately, the fish most commonly used for tuna steaks are ahi tuna, yellowfin tuna, bigeye tuna, or albacore. These varieties are all high in mercury. You should also avoid bluefin tuna for sustainability reasons. It’s considered the most endangered according to the World Wildlife Fund, and is also overfished in the Atlantic ocean. Instead, opt for Ahi tuna steaks but try to eat them occasionally because of the mercury content that comes from tuna being such a large fish with a long lifespan.

Cod has a mild flavor that makes it a great choice for people who don’t like the taste of most seafood. Shutterstock.

11. Try Cod if You Don’t Like the Taste of Fish

For people who don’t like fish, cod might be the best choice for getting a healthy dose of protein, Omega-3s, and other nutrients. Cod has a very mild flavor it’s a popular choice, especially since it’s found in many fast food chain fish sandwiches including those at McDonald’s and Arby’s. While the fish sandwich there is fried and not necessarily the most healthy, there are other ways you can eat cod as well. It tastes great baked in the oven with a light coating or it can be pan seared and topped with a sauce.

The delicate, white meat of cod makes it a popular choice for yummy dishes like fish tacos, too. Plus, it’s easy to dress up with your favorite seasonings or sauce. In addition to healthy fats and having around 15-20 grams of protein in a single serving, cod is rich in B vitamins that are important for energy and metabolism. You won’t get as many Omega-3s as you do in some varieties of fatty fish, but cod makes up for that with it’s low mercury content. Research shows its still great for heart health, plus it is full of all kinds of trace minerals that you need to keep your body functioning at its best.

Frying fish causes important fats and nutrients to seep out of fish, so pan searing, baking, or grilling are better cooking methods. Pixabay.

12. Skip Fried Seafood in Favor of Healthier Options

Adding breadcrumbs, flour, or a batter to seafood and frying it is just one way that you can enjoy some yummy seafood. Unfortunately, fried foods come with their own risks because of their high levels of unhealthy fats. These unhealthy fats stick to the walls of your artery. It’s no surprise, therefore, that eating fried foods has been linked to a heightened risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. Fried fish and other seafood also loses some of it’s nutritional value when fried. Fat-soluble nutrients like healthy fats are the most likely to be lost since it seeps out in the oil during the frying process. This means if you’re frying fish, you’re also likely cancelling out all the heart-healthy benefits.

Even though everyone loves brown, crispy food, there are plenty of alternative ways to cook seafood. Plus, many types of seafood have a more mellow flavor that pairs well with various spices. Seafood with firmer flesh like shrimp and certain types of fish can be grilled to impart flavor. Other times, searing in olive oil, baking in the oven, or steaming the seafood works well. If you are worried about flavor or the seafood drying out, marinating is another option. For people who are new to eating seafood, consider looking up some recipes that include some flavors you enjoy and give them a try. Practice makes perfect when it comes to cooking!

Fish farms reduce strain on ocean fisheries, but they have their own disadvantages for the ecosystem and nutrition of farmed fish. Shutterstock.

13. Choose Sustainable Fish to Avoid Damaging the Ecosystem

One of the biggest threats to fish in the industry is over-fishing. Think of lakes, rivers, oceans, and other waterways as you would any other ecosystem. For all the fish species to thrive, there needs to be balance. Over-fishing disrupts this balance and it creates problems in the future. After all, if a species is over-fished, there won’t be nearly as many during breeding season to re-populate the ecosystem. It can even disrupt other species that are part of their food chain, whether it’s small fish or algae that overruns the area because they aren’t being eaten or a bigger animal that preys on them having to find something else to eat.

In 1997, the Marine Stewardship Council was created to promote sustainable fishing. They monitor fishing practices and award MSC certification to the companies that fish in a way that doesn’t deplete or harm the environment or seafood populations. Another alternative to buying sustainable seafood is buying farm-raised fish. Farm-raised fish are bred with the purpose of being sold for food. This reduces some of the strain on fish from natural waterways by meeting consumer demand without disrupting the ecosystem. Even then, however, you should be aware of marine fisheries and their fish-raising practices before buying. Some use antibiotics and feed fish foods like corn and grain, which decreases their nutritional benefits.

Be sure to choose healthy seafood when it’s live and store seafood properly before cooking. Shutterstock.

14. Eat Live, Fresh Shellfish and Store Fresh Fish Properly

When buying live shellfish like lobster, crabs, mussels, oysters, and clams, it’s important that you select them while they are still alive. As soon as shellfish die, they quickly start spoiling. Eating spoiled or improperly prepared seafood leads to foodborne illness, so it’s important to choose them while they are still alive. For shelled fish like mussels or clams, the best way to determine how fresh they are is a “tap test”. The tap test involves tapping on the outside of the shell with your finger. Live shellfish close their shell when tapped. You should also discard any that are broken or cracked. For live crabs and lobsters, there should be apparent leg movement if they are still alive.

With live and fresh seafood, it’s best to cook it and eat it not long after you bring it home. Otherwise, it rapidly starts going rancid and growing bacteria. Seafood that is going to be consumed within two days can be refrigerated, but it must be kept at temperatures below 40 degrees. Putting it on ice is another option as long as a consistent, cool temperature can be maintained. If you are not going to consume it, then wrap the seafood in plastic, foil, or moisture-proof paper and freeze. You’ll want to wrap it tightly to avoid air getting inside and causing freezer burn. Freezer burn negatively affects the texture and the flavor of meats.

Seafood should be thawed and cooked properly to reduce the risk of parasites and foodborne illness. Shutterstock.

15. Follow Safe Thawing and Cooking Guidelines

It’s also important to follow safe cooking and thawing guidelines when consuming seafood. Seafood quickly grows bacteria when it sits at room temperature. Additionally, raw fish or fish that has not been properly cooked could contain parasites or cause foodborne illness. While there are some types of fish that people consume raw or undercooked, like in the case of sushi or medium-rare tuna, it’s important to note that these are considered sushi-grade fish. There are different standards because the fish is not being cooked all the way through. The food is prepared and processed differently to reduce the chance of parasites, however, consuming any kind of undercooked fish comes with this risk.

When thawing fish, never make the kitchen mistake of thawing at room temperature. Instead, thaw fish in the fridge overnight when possible. If you can’t, put it in a bag and submerge it in cold water or use the defrost setting. If defrosting, only warm it until the fish becomes slightly pliable and is still frozen. To kill bacteria and parasites, fish should be cooked to an internal temperature of 145 degrees. If you don’t have a meat thermometer, check the flesh of the seafood. Fish flesh becomes clear and flakes easily with a fork. Shellfish like clams, oysters, and mussels all open and you should discard those that don’t. Finally, the flesh of scallops, lobster, crab, and shrimp become firm and clear when cooked.