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The Dish on Fish

Mahi Mahi with Tomato, Olive, and Caper Sauce

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It’s splashed all over the news: Fish is good for you, and you should eat more of it. But wait, the next report warns that fish can be contaminated with toxic chemicals, so don’t eat too much. This is one of those frustrating contradictions that make you want to ignore nutrition experts entirely. It’s mindboggling for me too, and I’m one of them. But I’m also one of you, a food-lover who enjoys fish and wants to make the best choices for my family. So for my sanity and yours, I’ve boiled the issue down to a few simple guidelines that will help you get the most out of the sea’s delicious bounty.

Seafood provides healthful omega-3s
Reams of research point to the profound health benefits of eating seafood. For one, simply eating fish or shellfish twice a week can reduce the risk of dying from a heart attack by a whopping 30 percent. Consuming fish is linked with lower triglycerides and reduced risk of stroke and high blood pressure. Studies also show that eating fish may guard against cancer, protect skin from sun damage, and help ease the pain of arthritis.

All of these benefits can be attributed to seafood’s omega-3 fats, which have an antioxidant-like and anti-inflammatory effect on every cell in the body. We can get omega-3s from some plant foods, like flax, walnuts, and leafy green vegetables, but that’s in the form of ALA, which isn’t nearly as powerful as EPA and DHA, the forms found in fish. On top of that, fish is packed with protein and essential vitamins and minerals like zinc, magnesium, and iron.

Unfortunately, seafood has a dark side,too. It can be contaminated with toxins like
polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and mercury, which come from industrial waste that has polluted waters populated by fish. When we eat these fish, the toxins they carry can accumulate in our bodies over time and can ultimately damage our neurological systems.

Follow These Five Key Guidelines

For most people, the benefits of eating fish far outweigh any potential downsides, and more is generally better. But since rapidly growing cells are especially vulnerable to toxins, the risk-benefit balance shifts for pregnant women and young children. That’s why they should eat no more than 12 ounces of fish a week, and should be extra careful to stick with the safest kinds. The following five guidelines can help steer you.

1. Go for smaller fish. You can avoid mercury and other toxins by skipping the big fish at the top of the food chain. These fish live longer and eat other fish, and over time they accumulate and concentrate more contaminants in their tissues. So it makes sense that the fish highest in mercury and those the Food and Drug Administration recommends avoiding completely are what I call the Big Four: king mackerel, shark, swordfish, and tilefish. Some big fish, like grouper and large tuna, have slightly less mercury, so they’re fine to eat occasionally, but for the purest choices, stick with smaller fish like skipjack tuna, sardines, and flounder, which aren’t swimming around long enough to accumulate much mercury.

2. Avoid freshwater fish caught near industrialized areas. Sadly, so many of our inland waters are polluted that it’s best to limit wild-caught lake and river fish and check local advisories before you eat your catch from a fishing trip. United Statesfarmed trout and catfish are safe bets, though, as is wild-caught freshwater fish from Alaska, since they spend most of their lives far from populated areas.

3. Enjoy variety. Eating different types of fish from different areas can help prevent overexposure to any one contaminant. So branch out and mix it up.

4. Trim the fat. Since PCBs accumulate in the fat of the fish, simply removing the skin and brown fatty portion can make a big difference.

5. Don’t fry it.  When it comes to fish, frying can be especially unhealthful because it seals in the fat and pollutants. Grill, broil, or sauté instead so the fat can drip off.

The recipe at right is an example of how a simple swap can make a fish dish optimally healthy. The savory tomato-wine sauce studded with olives and capers is based on a classic Italian preparation that’s often paired with swordfish, one of those high-mercury Big Four. I’ve substituted mahi mahi because it has a similar steak-like texture and is rich in omega-3s but low in contaminants. Tasty, easy to make, and packed with health benefits, it’s good in every way.

Featured recipe:

Mahi Mahi with Tomato, Olive, and Caper Sauce

Good to Know

Healthful Fish to Try
The fish varieties listed here are my top picks. Not only are they rich in omega-3 fats and low in contaminants, but they’re also delicious and easy to find.

• Wild-caught Pacific salmon

• Wild-caught mahi mahi

• Wild-caught sardines

• U.S.-farmed catfish

• U.S.-farmed trout

Mahi Mahi with Tomato, Olive, and Caper Sauce


Leave a Comment


  • Ashtonjames | 05/12/2016

    Thank for sharing this recipe

  • organicGFchef | 12/29/2012

    I will certainly try this recipe. Gluten free recipe, using wild caught fish, should make this a healthy and tasty dish.

  • JillElise | 01/12/2012

    I also try to know if the fish I am considering buying is a threatened or endangered species.

  • donaldsys | 01/01/2012

    Healthy recipe! Because of the main ingredient which is fish! My mom always request for this dish! I love to cook fish due to it's health benefits.

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