Following the Caveman Part II: The Verdict on Fish

Jul 3, 2009 by

Stock salmon

Only a little damned if you do, much more damned if you don’t

Before I knew better, I idealistically thought fish farms would probably use their ability to control the raising environment to create a cleaner, healthier home for our finned friends than the polluted oceans offer them.

I now scoff at my innocence. I look with cynicism at the cheerful stickers on fish labels at the store that declare "farm raised" as if it were a badge of honor. I now know that farmed fish are probably about as ready–and as better off–as whitetail deer would be to give up their liberty and sometimes scarce foraging in exchange for regular meals in a pen.

Eating fish and seafood is as much a minefield, and for many of the same reasons, as eating meat. (For my account of that problem, see

Farmed fish are often fed noxious foods in conditions that are objectionable in many ways.

As for wild fish, I used to hear about how, because of the pollution in our waters, we shouldn’t eat too much fish and seafood, or too often. I once read that eating fish more than about once a month was dangerous because of mercury in them.

In spite of all those problems with eating fish, we hear even more these days about how great fish and seafood is for our health. It was one of the top menu items of our earliest ancestors, a staple food of what is today called the Caveman Diet, or hunter-gatherer diet.

(For more on the Caveman Diet, see my posts

The good news is that it looks like the benefits of seafood actually outweigh the risks, even today. That seems to be the general consensus now even in a sea of contradictory claims and conflicting research conclusions, if we can believe it.

I found a good way to look at the puzzle in The Paleo Diet, by Loren Cordain.

The diseases that are most likely to kill us —like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, obesity—are the very ones eating fish can help stave off, Cordain points out.

On the other hand, our risks from the toxins we might get eating fish are relatively insignificant, he argues. We might find that cold comfort, but what are you gonna do? It comes back to the fact that you have to eat. Perfect choices are few and far between.

I find it also adds weight in the balances in favor of fish when he says that the antioxidants we get from eating lots of fruits and vegetables as the early humans did will strengthen us against those pollutants in fish.

Furthermore, he points to a nine-year study of a group of islanders in the Indian Ocean. These people eat fish about a dozen times a week. The mercury levels in their bodies is about ten times that of the average American. The study found no harmful effects on children there even those whose mercury levels were up to 20 times the American average level. I wonder if there isn’t more to that picture, but still, it’s pretty reassuring.

All in all, that line of reasoning forms an argument I buy. For now, anyway. 

Good things to know about fish and seafood:

·         Shrimp is a great health food: low in mercury, with one of the highest ratios of protein to fat you can find.  Said to contain 10 times more vitamin D than liver, it’s a great food to prevent osteoporosis. Based on all I’ve read, it seems like such an extraordinarily good bet that I’m going to aim at serving shrimp once a week in as many different ways as I can.

·         Tuna:  fresh is better than canned (though FAR more expensive, of course). No salt/low sodium or packed in olive or canola oil are your better canned choices.

·         Some salmon has coloring added. That raises my suspicions. That can’t be a good thing.

·         Beware that much of what is sold as “crab” is imitation: "fish proteins" shaped and colored to look like crab. I’m not falling for it. Real lump crabmeat is about $15 a pound.

·         Eating a variety of different fish may help diversify the risks as well as the benefits.

·         Some studies report that farmed fish is deficient nutritionally. Somehow, other researchers say it’s as good as or even better than wild fish. I’m sure it depends on what specific fish are studied, but I wonder who is funding these studies? Who do we listen to? If you believe that an animal is what it eats, like I do, you believe it matters what they eat. So I always buy those marked “wild” in favor of those farmed.

Coming up: More on what I’ve learned about eating like a caveman:

How cavemen and women avoided osteoporosis

How to righteously get around the “no bread” rule

The truth on eggs:  how many, what kind?

Which nuts are best?

© French Kids Don’t Get Fat / Anna Migeon / 3 July 2009 / All rights reserved