When most people are craving some animal-based protein, they’re likely to reach for chicken, beef, and pork way more often than fish. But the Food and Drug Administration is hoping to change that, or at least up people’s fish intake—especially if they’re pregnant, planning to become pregnant, or are breastfeeding. The government organization has released new advice to help people “make informed choices when it comes to fish that is healthy and safe to eat.”
The advice includes a chart that breaks fish into three categories: “best choices,” “good choices,” and “choices to avoid,” based on their mercury content. It encourages people to eat two to three servings a week, or 8 to 12 ounces, of fish in the “best choices” category, which includes crab, flounder, shrimp, salmon, sardines, and tilapia. The other option is to have one serving a week of fish in the “good choices” category, including Chilean sea bass, grouper, halibut, canned tuna, and snapper. Children over the age of two are also encouraged to have one to two servings (2 to 4 ounces) of fish weekly. However, the FDA says, people should avoid high-mercury fishes, like swordfish, shark, and tilefish. (You can see the full list and breakdown here.)
Alissa Rumsey, M.S., R.D., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells SELF that most Americans don’t eat enough fish. Beth Warren, R.D.N., founder of Beth Warren Nutrition and author of Living a Real Life with Real Food, agrees, telling SELF she usually sees people gravitate toward meats other than fish, either because it takes more of a conscious effort to choose fish or they don’t like the taste of it. However, she says, it’s incredibly important to eat fish regularly.
“Aside from being a lean source of protein, and therefore, something you can eat more of than red meat, it’s also uniquely high in the most absorbed [forms of omega-3 fatty acids], EPA and DHA,” she says. Karen Ansel, M.S., R.D.N., the co-author of The Baby & Toddler Cookbook: Fresh, Homemade Foods for a Healthy Start, agrees, telling SELF that fish is the number one source of DHA and EPA, which are hard fatty acids to get. “Because our bodies can’t make these fats, we have to get them from our diet,” she says. “These unique fats keep our hearts and our brains healthy.” There’s even buzz about omega-3s helping to address mild to moderate depression when used alongside other treatment.
Eating foods rich in omega-3s can also help keep inflammation at bay, Rumsey says, which is good because chronic inflammation can increase your risk of issues like heart attack and stroke. And omega-3 fats are especially important for fetal growth and development, which is why fish is so strongly recommended for women who plan to become pregnant, are pregnant, or are nursing.
If you’re considering popping a fish oil supplement to reap the aforementioned healthy benefits, it’s worth noting that research suggests those fishy pills pale in comparison to the real thing.
If you’re not getting enough fish and aren’t sure where to start, Warren recommends not overthinking it. Pick out a fish at the fish market or grocery store, cook it with minimal add-ons, and let the fish do the rest. “There are so many natural flavors to fish, especially if you’re choosing those with a lot of omega-3s,” like salmon, she says. She recommends lightly seasoning fish with spices like salt, pepper, garlic powder, and paprika, or even more exotic spices like za’atar, and adding a squeeze of fresh lemon juice before prepping the fish. Fish actually cooks pretty quickly, so Warren recommends keeping a close eye on it as it’s broiling or baking. Here are 16 easy fish recipes to make for lunch or dinner to get you started.
Ansel admits that a lot of people are intimidated by cooking fish, especially if they’re not into the taste, and points out that you can order it when you go out to eat if you know you’re less likely to cook it at home. However, she says, it’s not hard to cook, and baking it can help eliminate the smell, which can be a big turn-off to people. “Pre-prepared [options] like shrimp cocktail can also be a great way to sneak some seafood into your diet without ever having to cook it,” she says. Canned salmon or tuna are also really versatile and don’t require cooking, Rumsey points out—you can add them to salads, sandwiches, or pasta.
Gina Keatley, a C.D.N. practicing in New York City, tells SELF that you can also buy fish fillets in frozen form. “Frozen fish has gotten a makeover and should be in competition for a position on your dinner table,” she says. “Fish is not only doable, it’s the easiest menu change with the highest impact.” (Just be sure to check the sodium content, since some frozen versions can contain a lot of salt.)
If you’ve never had much fish, Ansel says it may take time and experimentation to see what works for you, especially if the taste isn’t completely up your alley. “If you’re a fish newbie, try eating it in a familiar food, like fish tacos or in pasta marinara,” she says. Keatley agrees with this tactic. “You don’t have to change everything to make big changes,” she says. “It’s about the small changes over a long period of time.”