The Healthiest Fish for Cyclists to Eat—and the Options Best in Moderation
When it comes to nutrition for improving health and performance, there is a boatload of reasons to make fish – actually, seafood in general – a menu staple. Nutritionally, fish—large and small—can flood your body with protein, healthy fats, and a host of essential vitamins and minerals. One recent study in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology determined that swapping out some of the red and processed meat our diets with seafood can add healthy years to your life.
But despite the overarching nutrition benefits, seafood consumption in America—as opposed to land-based animal proteins—has remained very static over the decades. Everything from cost to contaminant worries to concerns about overfishing has kept fish out of shopping carts. So, chances are you aren’t eating enough.
Navigating the fish counter is indeed no simple task. Let us help guide you toward healthy fish to eat with all the information you need to know to wade through the murky waters and catch the best options for you and the planet.
The benefits of fish rich in omega-3s
You may opt for chicken breast as a source of lean protein, but when it comes to fish, you’d be wise to cast your line for fattier options more often. That’s because these species are the best source of the mega-healthy omega-3 fatty acids EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).
With tons of published studies on the benefits of these omega-3 fats, they’re one of the most researched nutrients out there. Yet, the typical American diet includes far fewer omega-3 fats than what’s considered optimal.
That’s concerning when you hear that low levels of omega-3s in red blood cell membranes are associated with higher rates of early death in a sample of 2,240 adults, to a degree comparable to smoking, according to an analysis of 11 years of data published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. And, a recent study in Diabetes Care found that people who consumed two or more weekly servings of oily fish had a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes compared with those who never consumed oily fish. Non-oily fish consumption did not affect diabetes risk. Other research has even linked these omega-3 fats to improved sleep quality and mood.
From an athlete’s perspective, greater intakes appear to result in less training-induced muscle soreness and improved heart rate recovery when exercising—both of which could help you bounce back quicker from hard-charging rides.
These overachieving fats are an integral part of cell membranes throughout your body and, in turn, affect the functioning of nearly every area including your heart, brain, and muscle tissue. You can bump up your intake of these must-have fats with the following options:
- Atlantic mackerel
- Arctic char
- Lake whitefish
- Sablefish (black cod)
- Salmon (farmed and wild)
- Sea bass
There is still nothing wrong with eating fish that are lower in omega-3, such as tilapia and catfish, since these are a source of protein and other important nutrients, including selenium. Just aim to consume the above-mentioned fattier options a little more often to get your omega-3 intake to where it should be.
The benefits of shellfish
If you like seafood that comes in shells, not with scales, you’re in luck. Mussels, clams, and oysters are among the most nutrient-dense types of seafood.
Oysters contain more immunity-enhancing zinc than any other food—just six eastern oysters pack nearly 300 percent of the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for this nutrient. Mussels are a surprising source of omega-3 fat as well as a fantastic source of vitamin B12, with each ounce serving providing more than a day’s requirement. Plus, they are sustainable—budget-friendly farmed mussels filter and clean the water they are farmed in.
The benefits of canned fish
They might not be the most celebrated option, but canned fish—convenient and budget-friendly!—is a great way to sneak more seafood into your diet. Salmon, sardines, and mackerel—which are all nice sources of omega-3 fats, protein, and hard-to-get vitamin D—can be found in the canned food aisle. Eating these options with their bones in provide calcium, too—tinned sockeye and pink salmon are almost always sourced from sustainable wild stocks in Alaska.
As for canned tuna, it’s a bit trickier. More meaty and flavourful albacore (aka “white”) has about three times as much omega-3s as skipjack (ahi). But this comes at a price of higher mercury levels (albacore is a larger species of tuna than skipjack, so it accumulates more of this contaminant) and some sustainability concerns including overfishing. Note: Draining the water or oil from canned tuna will not noticeably lower mercury levels. So you can opt for light tuna, just be sure to make up for the omega-3 shortfall with other types of lower mercury fish like canned salmon.
The benefits of frozen fish
Frozen fish, such as wild salmon, can be more economical, and you can buy it well in advance and then use it when desired. Frozen fish is still super healthy, since state-of-the-art flash-freezing technology employed shortly after fish have been caught results the nutrients being preserved. There are environmental benefits as well, since frozen fish can travel to markets at slower speeds.
What you may not know is that much of the “fresh” fish displayed on ice at the fish counter was indeed previously frozen for shipping purposes and to aid in killing off any parasites. These are then thawed for display. So, your subzero piece of halibut may indeed be fresher than the thawed option that has been sitting on ice for a bit too long. The longer the fish sits thawed out, the more the quality deteriorates. Fish that’s labeled Frozen at Sea (FAS) or Individually Quick Frozen (IFQ) can signify higher-quality cuts.
The healthiest ways to cook your fish
To reap the benefits of eating fish, you’ll have to go easy on crispy fast-food fish sandwiches and fish and chips. Research suggests consuming fried fish can cancel out some of the health-boosting powers of consuming seafood. For instance, this review found that as the intake of fried fish increases, so does the risk for heart failure. And, this investigation found that eating baked or broiled fish can improve heart functioning, but this benefit was reversed for fried fish.
The high temperatures used in frying may induce oxidation of the cholesterol in fish, forming cholesterol oxidation products (COPs). COPs may raise the risk for certain ailments including heart disease.
The max out the benefits of your fish intake, use less harmful preparation techniques including baking, sautéing, and steaming. And limit how much fried, battered, or crispy fish you order off of restaurant menus.
What to keep in mind when buying your fish
When you eat large amounts of seafood with high levels of methylmercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and other contaminants in their tissues, it can affect your health—including your brain and nervous system.
However, many health experts will say that the benefits of eating fish outweigh concerns over contaminants and the lack of omega-3s in our diets is more concerning health-wise to the population than potential exposure to mercury or PCBs.
Still, it’s a good idea to limit your contaminant intake by making wiser choices. Developing children and women who are pregnant or nursing should pay special attention to limiting their exposure to mercury in seafood. Larger, longer-living predatory fish tend to have higher concentrations of mercury (the metal bioaccumlates up the food chain), so consider trimming your intake of shark, swordfish, king mackerel, marlin, orange roughy, tilefish, and bluefin and bigeye tuna. Also, eating a greater variety of fish can be a good way to limit your intake of these toxins—salmon, sardines, rainbow trout, halibut, and mussels are all examples of species that carry a lower contaminant risk.
Additionally, doing your homework on which fish are your most environmentally friendly choices is important. A great place to start is with this Red List online guide that makes it easier to suss out the species that are farmed or harvested from the wild using the best farming and fishing methods (regional guides are also available).