Every few years you hear about some society that lays claim to having the world’s oldest people, be it an island on the coast of Greece, or Japan, or Alaska. The places change with new discoveries of lots of robust old people who aren’t living in nursing homes. And every so often the newspapers do a lovely job of finding some American expatriate who is now living longer than the doctors in the US ever predicted.
All of these societies of long-lived people have predictable components:
•They have little stress, as modern man defines it.
• They drink some tea or coffee.
• They have some alcohol.
• They are social, and physically active.
• They are usually near the ocean, and the diet of these individuals is remarkably filled with fish. There is little doubt that seafood, rich in micro-nutrients but not calorie dense, provides a great source of food.
Because someone had to think of a name for diet that is fish based, the word “pescetarian” came into being in the 1990s to denote someone who would only eat fish, and not livestock or poultry. While this is a “made up” idea of how to eat—someone always wants to make their diet their religion—having a diet rich in seafood is a great idea. However, one must be careful about which seafood, and from where (more about this later).
When the World Health Organization looked at longevity, people who eat primarily fish in their diet were among the longest living individuals—outliving vegans, meat eaters, and vegetarians.
The much-heralded Mediterranean diet is heavily fish-based. While many have focused on olive oil as the “secret” ingredient, fish appears to be the primary protein of this mythical diet. We say “mythical” because most of those who live in the Mediterranean today eat a typical Western diet. It is ironic that in Rome, McDonald’s has a higher Yelp review than the Coliseum, but it shows how the nature of the food we eat has gone from uniquely regional foods to a global mess. Before McDonald’s, there was a Mediterranean diet—a real one.
If you are in Sardinia, the rugged island south of Corsica, and ask for some pasta with marinara sauce, you’ll get a surprise. Unlike the “traditional” sauce that is tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, and basil, you’ll find all manner of sardines (this is Sardinia, after all), local fish, mussels, and lobster in the dish. It’s truly a “marinara” sauce, from the sea, and it will make you think that all those “marinara” sauces you made or bought before were merely a fake tomato sauce.
We evolved from the sea- and are forever tied to it, as it provides us with the perfect balance of micronutrients and macronutrients to sustain us.
Omega Fatty Acids and Seafood
Our bodies use omega-3 fatty acids for a variety of biochemical reactions. Omega-3 fatty acids are in every cell of the body, and they:
(1) Decrease and moderate some of the harmful inflammatory responses that have been considered to be associated with aging, heart disease, and cancer.
(2) Provide protection for the brain, decreasing risks with strokes, and other issues.
(3) Protect the heart, reducing damage after heart attacks and preventing heart attacks.
But the human body does not make omega-3 fatty acids, which means they are “essential” and must come from the diet. While there are plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids, the main source that humans ubiquitously use is from the sea. Since humans were always close to the ocean, in prehistoric times the loss of the ability to manufacture our own omega-3 fatty acids did not violate natural selection.
Vegetarians are quick to point out that dietary omega 3- fatty acids can come from alpha-linoleic acid (ALA). However the conversion of ALA to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) or docoseahexaenoic acid (DHA) is very biochemically limited with only about 5% ALA is converted to EPA and less than 0.5% to DHA. Fish are the best source for omega-3 fatty acids and their byproducts. If there is anything missing from a vegetarian or vegan diet, it is these essential fatty acids, and supplementation with pills does not work as well. This may well be the reason that vegans have a shorter lifespan than pescetarians.
Other Micro-nutrients: A Lesson From the Third World
Humans more effectively absorb vitamin A, iron, and zinc from fish sources than those same micro-nutrients found in plant-based foods. This is not surprising, considering the evolution of food sources for humans has primarily been from coastal and riparian communities where fish has been an integral component of the diet.
While the small bowel is effective at absorption, often absorption of micro-nutrients must be in a combination with an organic component, and not isolated as an inorganic substance. Vitamin B12, for example, is absorbed efficiently when combined with intrinsic factor from the stomach, and not isolated as its own molecule. While science has been efficient at determining the biochemically active substances, we are just beginning to understand the absorption of nutrients cross the small bowel into the stomach. That absorption of those ingredients is more efficient with fish is unsurprising.
Over fishing in the coastal and riparian areas of small villages has led to an increase in starvation, but prior to that, a deficiency in those micro-nutrient can lead to increased risk of diarrhea, malaria, and other infectious diseases. Among children, pregnant women, and lactating women, the deficiencies lead to delay in growth, cognitive development of children, and increased health issues. Among adults this leads to a decrease in productivity.
A solution to those communities where micro-nutrient deficiency has led to increasing disease has been both improved management of wetlands and flood planes (as seen in Bangladesh), but also aquaculture to supply the production of fish that are sustainable and not just seasonal.
Anemia among vegans/vegetarians from poor iron, calcium, vitamin A, D, and B12 absorption is reversed easily when they change to a diet that includes fish as a source of protein.
Providing a Sustainable Source of Seafood
There are two great threats to fish as food, and every cook can be a part of the solution.
Scarcity- Providing for a sustainable resource to feed the planet means responsible fishing and aquaculture. Purchasing product from reliable sources that have proven responsibility to the creatures we eat and the environment they live in.
Safety- The second issue is providing for seafood that is safe—from the pollution that we have allowed to plunder our food and from the bugs that can infect us from the seafood. This also means purchasing product from not only reliable sources, but also the chain of those who handle the product must treat the product with care. I recently wrote an article about mercury, and another article about PCBs.
Fish are not Sentient
For those concerned with the pain fish might feel, the farming of fish avoids prolonged suffering from being caught, drowned, and prodded. It should be pointed out that as a sentient being, fish do not have the nervous capacity to know fear, only a primitive avoidance reaction. The fish do not have a neocortex of their brain, in order to process what pain is. Suffering is a higher conscious level of thinking; a human can consider pain, be worried about it, and feel pain in anticipation of pain, but a fish cannot.
A Journey to Mars
Many assert that the only sustainable source of food for space travel will have to be plant-based. However, sustainable aquaculture provides both reliable proteins, with appropriate micro-nutrients that have ten to one hundred times better bioavailability than plants.
Fish provide the necessary phosphorus for plants, and unless Mars has large supplies, such an ingredient is needed to grow plants; and a sustainable ecosystem of fish and plants provides a closed system that can feed a distant planetary outpost. Not just fish, but algae, filter feeders, crustaceans, and up the food chain are needed to provide sustainable sources of protein, water, and feed for a planet.
While cattle take 8.7 pounds of feed to make one pound of usable food, fish take only 1.2 pounds of feed to make one pound of food, and all can be placed in a closed, contained, recyclable system.
Dr. Terry Simpson
Dr. Terry Simpson received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Chicago where he spent several years in the Kovler Viral Oncology laboratories doing genetic engineering. He found he liked people more than petri dishes, and received his MD. Dr. Simpson, a renowned weight loss surgeon, is a leading advocate of culinary medicine. A frequent contributor to media outlets discussing health related topics and advances in medicine, he is also a proud dad, husband, author, cook, and surgeon “in that order.” For media inquiries, please visit www.terrysimpson.com.