Doctors Say Eat More Fish – But Which Fish?

31 May 2011

On the one hand, doctors and dieticians exhort people to eat more fish as part of a healthy, balanced diet. On the other, scientists and environmentalists warn that our seas are being emptied by massive overfishing. How to find a middle path between what’s good for our health and what’s good for the health of the planet? This was the issue being debated at a Water Workshop at Slow Fish, Slow Food’s sustainable seafood event on Sunday.

Roberto Burdese, president of Slow Food Italy, emphasized the need for a holistic approach. “It’s increasingly clear that we have to link our work on biodiversity protection, food culture and taste education with a focus on how we eat and our health,” he said. The themes of Slow Food and health were inseparable: “When we make wrong food choices, it’s not just a problem for our health, but also for the environment, the economy, the survival of certain sectors. Equally, food choices in line with the Slow Food philosophy are also in line with good health.”

“We’re told to eat more fish, but which fish? You risk doing harm to the environment, thinking you’re doing good for your health,” said Burdese, before turning to Piero Sardo, president of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity. Sardo talked about Slow Food’s difficulties in issuing bans on eating certain things. “Saying no goes beyond what you expect from a gastronomic association,” he said. “If you start saying ‘don’t eat this’ it could lead to gastronomic pessimism. But we have started giving bans, two years ago at Slow Fish we clearly said not to eat bluefin tuna.” He accepted that this could lead to accusations of hypocrisy, but said that the situation had changed very rapidly in the last ten years, with stocks diminishing drastically. “We can’t be blind in gastronomy. We can’t be selfish.”

“When doctors say ‘eat more fish,’ they don’t say ‘eat more horse mackerel’,” he continued. “So people go to supermarket counters without knowing what to choose, and they’re faced with incredible variety from all over the world. Today, common sense is not enough. We need clear guidelines.”

Dr. Andrea Pezzana, director of clinical dietetics and nutrition at the San Giovanni Bosco hospital in Turin, was on hand to provide some of these guidelines. He began by talking about the indisputable health benefits of eating fish. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish, have been shown to reduce inflammation and may help lower the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer and arthritis. Pezzana said that dietary supplements contained omega-3s did not have as much effect as when they occur naturally, as in fish. However, he said that while fish is a primary source of omega-3s, it also often contains toxic substances such as mercury and dioxins. “So we shouldn’t just choose the fish richest in omega-3s, but also the fish with the least contaminants.” He said fish with long lifespans at the top of the food chain concentrate the most toxins in their flesh, and that these were also the species, like tuna and swordfish, most at risk from overfishing. “So there are parallels with the eco-gastronomic argument, and you can eliminate fish from your diet that would be inadvisable anyway.”

Pezzana recommended the “poor fish,” the neglected species often passed over in favor of more popular choices like salmon, saying that they often have fewer toxins and significant omega-3 levels.

Choosing sustainably fished alternatives was one way to reconcile gastronomy, environmental sustainability and nutrition, he said. While dietary recommendations from governments and the World Health Organization do say to eat more fish, they also say to eat more plant-origin foods, and he called for a return to traditional dishes based on beans and grains as part of a necessary modification of global consumption styles.

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