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Miracle of the Fishes

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Take advantage of Lent and reap the healthful benefits of seafood

The end of the Mardi Gras season marks the beginning of Lent, a great opportunity for a little downtime and the resumption of healthy habits.

Many of our favorite restaurants will be featuring an array of seafood specialties throughout the Lenten season. Seafood is lower in fat and calories than red meat and poultry, it’s a great source of lean protein and it can be rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fat. Enjoy a variety of delicious seafood dishes grilled, baked or poached instead of fried and reap the many healthful benefits.

There are some controversies related to certain types of seafood, mostly concerning cholesterol levels in shellfish, mercury levels in fish and farm-raised versus wild-caught fish.

There are a lot of misconceptions about shellfish and how it affects blood lipid levels, particularly LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. While shrimp and crawfish are higher in cholesterol than many foods, the most recent studies support that saturated fat is the enemy when it comes to raising LDL cholesterol levels, not the actual cholesterol in foods. Shrimp and crawfish are very low in saturated fat, making them a great choice if you’re following a low saturated-fat diet to improve cholesterol. Enjoy those crawfish boils that are so popular this time of year but refrain from sucking the heads, where all the fat is.

In recent years, there has been growing concern about mercury levels in some types of fish. In concentrated amounts, mercury is a neurotoxin that can affect the central nervous system. The safest bet is to select fish that are smaller and younger, as they don’t have as much contaminant build-up as larger, older fish do. Good choices include salmon, any fish from the herring family (includes sardines), ahi tuna (also known as yellowfin tuna), anchovies and Spanish mackerel. Fish that may contain higher levels of mercury include shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish.

Another toxin that can build up in fish is known as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). PCBs were chemicals used in the 1970s for commercial applications but were discontinued due to their potential toxicity to the nervous system (similar to mercury). PCBs can still be present in sediments that farm-raised fish are exposed to. These toxins are not generally harmful for most of the population. However, children and pregnant or nursing women are at a higher risk when consuming large amounts of farm-raised fish. It’s better to consume wild-caught fish, particularly salmon, when available.

Bottom line: Seafood is a great source of lean protein, low in saturated fat, high in omega-3 fat and will not significantly impact cholesterol levels. Wild-caught fish is generally better for you to consume. Farm-raised fish can have more toxins than wild but is generally considered safe for healthy individuals.