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What Types of Seafood Are "Best" to Eat?

By Julie Scharper
For many of us, seafood comes with a twist of lemon and a side of self-righteousness. It’s a good source of lean protein and contains those heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids we hear so much about. But just how healthy is seafood?

Peer beneath the surface and things get a bit murkier. A quick search brings up articles about overfishing, mercury contamination, and irresponsible aquaculture practices.

These are issues that Jillian Fry explores in her work as the director of the Center for a Livable Future’s Seafood, Public Health & Food Systems Project. Not all seafood is created equal, Fry says. The type of fish or shellfish you choose— and where and how it is harvested— carries real ramifications for your health and the health of our waterways.

You don’t need to eat a lot of seafood to reap the health benefits, Fry says. The federal government recommends just two servings of fish or shellfish each week. “For many Americans, it’s not that they need to eat more seafood,” she says. “They need to eat better seafood.”

That’s bad news for fans of fish sticks and fried shrimp, which are loaded with saturated fats, Fry says. Your best bets are fish that are high in omega-3s, which are associated with a reduced risk of strokes and heart attacks, and, for pregnant women, healthy fetal development. Salmon, anchovies, herring, sardines, trout, oysters, and mussels are good sources of omega-3s. They also contain little mercury, a poisonous metal that becomes more concentrated as it travels up the food chain.

The type of fish or shellfish you choose—and where and how it is harvested—carries real ramifications for your health and the health of our waterways.

Avoid species that do have high levels of mercury, including marlin, shark, tilefish, bigeye tuna, swordfish, orange roughy, and king mackerel, Fry says. While most adults can eat these fish occasionally, children and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should never eat them.

Some of your best options at the grocery store are not displayed on ice butare packed away in tins, Fry says. Sardines, anchovies, and herring are rich in nutrients, low in contaminants, and are generally plentiful and easy to catch.

As for environmental consequences, wild fisheries in the United States are carefully managed, so you can eat that Atlantic salmon without worry. But there is one notable exception: shrimp. Many beneficial creatures are caught during shrimp trawling and are discarded as bycatch, Fry says. Before you purchase shrimp, check to see whether it has been certified as an environmentally friendly choice. It’s also a good idea to check on seafood caught or farmed abroad, as many fishing and farming operations have been accused of human rights abuses and environmentally destructive practices.

“For many Americans, it’s not that they need to eat more seafood. They need to eat better seafood.”

The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch database is an excellent source of information on these issues, Fry says. She also recommends checking the labels of farmed seafood for certifications from the Aquaculture Stewardship Council or Best Aquaculture Practices. These indicate that the conditions the animal was raised under meet improved standards for safety and environmental responsibility.

One delicious way to help the environment is to eat oysters. Farmed bivalves, such as oysters, clams, and mussels, actually improve the water in which they are raised by filtering out excess nutrients. From an environmental perspective, they’re one of the best choices you can make, partly because they don’t need resource-intensive feed; however, you’ll want to eat bivalves from water relatively free of heavy metals and contaminants.

Whether you’re at a restaurant or the fishmonger, Fry recommends trying locally caught fish—even if you’re not familiar with the species. “Even though there are hundreds of species of seafood, Americans tend to eat the same ones over and over—shrimp, salmon, canned tuna, and pollock, which is used for fish patties and fish sticks,” Fry says. “Eating local seafood brings variety to your diet and introduces you to new choices.”

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