June 18, 2014 5:37 AM EDT
If you eat fish for the health benefits, then you likely value salmon for its omega-3s and its supposed ability to boost brain function. In that case, sorry for the bad news, but recent research shows there’s a shadowy dark side to salmon.
My book Meatonomics explores the hidden forces at play in Americans’ high levels of consumption of fish and other animal foods. Salmon is particularly troubling because research shows that our obsession with this and other fish is causing catastrophic declines in marine ecosystems.
This article explores these and other problems with salmon, giving you five reasons to drop-kick the fish the way you might a false lover.
1. Salmon’s “health benefits” are a fish story.
Studies often praise salmon’s health benefits. But that’s just because salmon is healthier than other animal-based foods, particularly red meat. However, when research compares salmon to truly healthy alternatives like plant-based protein, which has no cholesterol, the fish comes up as short as a ship’s flag at half-mast.
Nutritionist John McDougall, MD, for example, warns salmon is “half fat” and says eating it increases the risk of obesity and type-2 diabetes. And the USDA says ounce for ounce, salmon contains just as much cholesterol as hamburger. But wait … what about those healthy Omega-3s everyone seems to crave?
Unfortunately, research finds fish-based Omega-3s inhibit the action of insulin, thereby increasing blood sugar levels and aggravating diabetes. Another study shows fish-derived Omega-3s greatly increase the volume of colon cancer metastasis when compared to a low-fat diet. And forget salmon if you’re worried about bone density: the fish’s highly-acidic flesh speeds calcium loss and contributes to osteoporosis and kidney stones.
2. Down on the farm, things are even worse.
Of course, we’ve been talking about wild salmon, which is far healthier than its farmed cousin. But if you eat farmed salmon, you’re really asking for trouble.
Farm-raised salmon contains unhealthy levels of contaminants like PCBs, dioxins, and other chemicals that cause cancer and developmental problems in kids.
One study of US Salmon Consumption says “young children, women of child-bearing age, pregnant women, and nursing mothers” should avoid farmed salmon if they’re “concerned with health impairments such as reduction in IQ and other cognitive and behavioral effects.” Which makes one wonder: who isn’t concerned about such things?
3. Salmon takes a walk on the not-so-wild side.
If the concept was unclear before, now you know: farmed salmon is bad news. The problem is, sticking to wild-caught salmon is easier said than done.
With armadas of commercial fishing ships scouring the oceans, largely unregulated and driven by huge government subsidies, the last few decades have seen many of the planet’s wild salmon habitats decline or collapse like tents in a storm.
As a result, producers increasingly turn to aquaculture to meet demand. Today, four out of five forkfuls of salmon eaten in the U.S. come from fish farms. With numbers like these, it’s no big surprise that a New York Times investigation found three-quarters of fish stores pawning off farmed salmon as wild-caught.
One store had the nerve to charge $29 per pound for farmed salmon falsely labeled as wild.
Could this happen to you? Is it possible it already has? Yes and yes.
Fish farmers feed red foodstuffs to salmon to turn their flesh pink, which makes it impossible for consumers without a lab or a sophisticated palate to tell the difference between wild and farmed fish. Worse, it’s not just fish distributors and retailers who deceive us — the fish do it themselves.
One alarming study found that as a result of farmed fish escaping into the wild, up to 40% of supposedly wild-caught salmon studied were actually of farmed origin.
4. Salmon for the people means less for the animals.
There’s a lot of competition for food in the wild, and when humans eat salmon, we make it harder for other species to eat. Salmon is a “keystone species” — that is, it has a disproportionately large importance on its environment compared to its abundance. In regions where predators rely on salmon for their own survival, decreases in the salmon population cause predator populations to decline.
Thus, in the Pacific Northwest, one of a number of regions where wild salmon populations are struggling because of over-fishing and other human-caused problems, the sharp drop in salmon numbers is causing populations of bears, orcas and eagles to die off.
With one-third of the world’s commercial fishing grounds already in a state of collapse, and the rest headed there by mid-century, one person’s whimsical enjoyment of an occasional salmon steak can literally mean the difference between life and death for another animal.
5. Farming only makes overfishing worse.
Some urge fish farming as the solution to the problems of overfishing, but aquaculture only aggravates things. Salmon are predators who must eat other fish to survive, and it takes up to five pounds of prey fish like anchovies and herrings to produce one pound of salmon. As fish farmers around the world scoop up prey fish to feed their farmed animals, this lopsided math is damaging prey fish stocks everywhere.
One sobering report finds that aquaculture’s insatiable demand for prey fish is responsible for declining populations of whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, tuna, bass, salmon, albatross, penguins, and other species.
“We have caught all the big fish and now we are going after their food,” said Margot Stiles, the report’s lead author. The result, said Stiles, is “widespread malnutrition” in the oceans.
Breaking Up is Hard to Do
It can be hard to drop a food you’ve loved for years, but sometimes you’ve got to read the writing on the seawall.
People don’t need salmon or any other fish to survive. In fact, by avoiding fish and other animal foods, millions of vegans around the world lead uber-healthy lives with negligible levels of cancer, diabetes and heart disease compared to the rest of the population.
Looking for Omega 3’s? Try cholesterol-free plant sources like flax, hemp, soy and walnuts.
Of course, fish get all their Omega-3’s from aquatic vegetation like seaweed, which is another great source of these beneficial fatty acids. With a little willpower, you can dump salmon.
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