God’s Creatures of the Sea
God prescribed foods of great benefit through the Quran and the Sunnah. One of those foods is fish. In Surat An-Nahl (The Bee), God says, “And it is He who subjected the sea for you to eat from it tender meat and to extract from it ornaments which you wear” [16:14]. Then He continues to tell us in a verse in Surat Fatir (Originator) that fish from both fresh water and salty water provide good meat to eat. “And not alike are the two bodies of water. One is fresh and sweet, palatable for drinking, and one is salty and bitter. And from each you eat tender meat [. . .]” [35:12]. And in Surat Al Ma’idah (The Table Spread), God says that hunting land animals during hajj, or pilgrimage, is prohibited; however, “Lawful to you is game from the sea and its food as provision for you and the travelers [. . .]” [5:96].
God told humanity, through His wisdom thousands of years ago, fish is a beneficial food source suitable for consumption, but what does current research report about eating fish?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease is the number one killer in the United States but many studies show fish has a preventive effect. The Global Journal of Health Sciences published a study in 2012 reporting the polyunsaturated fats in fish reduce one’s risk of arteriosclerotic and thrombotic disease; in other words, consuming fish helps prevent heart disease and stroke.
One role overlooked by many individuals is the crucial one fish consumption plays in regard to fetal health and development. For healthy babies it is important their mothers consume seafood before pregnancy and during all stages. Research shows women who eat fish before and during the first trimester show better fetal growth and lower risk of early delivery. Additionally, eating fish during the final trimester is associated with better brain development, and mothers who eat fish during pregnancy and while nursing have babies who perform better on infant cognition tests according to Grazyna Daczkowska-Kozon and Bonnie Sun Pan, editors of the book Environmental Effects on Seafood Availability, Safety, and Quality. But it is important to note Daczkowska-Kozon and Sun Pan recommend pregnant and nursing mothers consume fish no more than three times a week for maximum benefit.
In addition to being packed with healthy polyunsaturated fats, fish are optimal sources of lean protein, complete amino acids, vital vitamins, and other nutrients. It is also important to mention fatty fish are one of the few natural sources of vitamin D and iodine according to the International Journal of Vitamin and Nutrition Research (2012).
Not only does enjoying fish for dinner reduce a person’s risk of heart disease and provide outstanding nutrition, but it also improves neurological health and performance. The Journal of Gerontology published a study in 2013 that found “consumption of tuna and dark-meat fish once weekly or higher was associated with lower decline in verbal memory for a period of 4 years” in women with a mean age of 72 years old. Researchers also concluded in a 2014 article published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, “Dietary consumption of baked or broiled fish is related to larger gray matter volumes […].” Gray matter is often used as a synonym for intelligence.
Some people prefer to avoid seafood for fear of the negative effects of mercury or other contaminants, but Mayo Clinic says the positive health benefits of consuming fish outweigh the negative. Additionally, selecting the right kind of fish can both maximize the benefits and reduce exposure to these contaminants. First, choose wild caught fish over farm-raised; wild caught fish have less contaminants and have not been exposed to the antibiotics, pesticides, and chemicals farm-raised fish have come in contact with. Mayo Clinic also suggests selecting fatty fish like salmon, tuna, trout, herring, and sardines because they have the most beneficial polyunsaturated fats compared to other fish.
If you are concerned about mercury and other contaminants, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers resources via their website that will link you to fish advisories by location, fish species, pollutant, and more.
When it comes to amounts, the American Heart Association recommends having one serving of fish (three and a half ounces or about the size of an iPhone) at least twice a week to promote heart health, while pregnant women and children should not consume fish more than three times a week.
Ready to incorporate seafood into your diet? Why not try pan-seared salmon filets for dinner one evening? They only take 15 minutes to prepare. Or take crackers and no-mayo tuna salad (recipe on page 20) to the office for a delicious and healthy lunch. Be creative; there are oceans full of fish and numerous ways to enjoy them.
Sarene Alsharif is a nutritionist and an active member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She earned her master’s in public health in addition to certifications in sports nutrition and gluten-free diets.