Human diets can be as unique as fingerprints. We all have our quirks, from general preferences like red meat to vegetarian or vegan to finer details like spices or no spices. Perhaps it is time we come to consensus on *some* aspects of our consumption. If not for our own bodies, then for the one body we all share: Mother Earth. What we consume has a direct impact on our bodies, on the ecosystem, and on the planet. It is time to make sure our consumption habits have the least negative impact on the ecosystem while still sustaining our nutritional requirements.
In an effort to do my part, I started researching options and landed on the “pescatarian diet,” where a person’s main source of animal protein comes from fish and other seafood. The environmental impact of industrialized red meat production and health concerns make a strong case for seafood a favorable alternative diet.
I decided to analyze and visually explore what I learned about aquatic food sources:
- Sustainability. Goal: Explore sustainability in terms of environment and fish populations across fishing regions in USA.
- Nutritional value. Goal: Establish the nutritional value of fish species found across US marine environments. Compare species, identify trends and contrast with other food sources, i.e., beef, poultry, vegetables, and pork.
This project primarily analyzes the fisheries management dataset from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). There are five fishery regions that fall under the supervision of NOAA. The Greater Atlantic region is home to the most seafood species caught and sold in the USA (hover across the map to see species populations).
1. Environmentally Friendly
The first thing I analysed was how environmentally-friendly the seafood industry is across the fishery regions in the US. Here two main factors were considered: first, the relative “health” of the marine environment. It is important that the industry does not show signs of over-fishing and destroying fish populations and ecosystems. Second, I explored the carbon footprint of seafood as compared to the red meat industry. Fish are caught and supplied in either a seasonal fashion or year round in the USA. Below are the findings from my analysis of 117 species.
Over 65 percent of the fish populations are above the NOAA regulatory target, indicating a sustainable source of seafood. As most species can be found in market year round, this means your seafood diet of choice is likely to be available to you on demand.
Some regions, like the Pacific Islands and Southeast, have fishing rates that can be categorized as stable by NOAA regulations. None of the regions have over-fishing rates higher than 19 percent of the species. Overall, this is a sign of stable and sustainable fish ecosystems and populations.
When it comes to carbon footprint of the industry, according to research from Canadian scientists, seafood has one of the lowest carbon footprint, as compared to other food sources.
2. Nutritionally Healthy
Exploring the same data revealed that seafood is protein-rich with low calories. Utilizing the US Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) as guidance to compare the nutritional values seafood species have, it looks like most fish are rich in protein, selenium, and cholesterol. Research has also found that one serving (70–100 gms) of seafood provides almost half the required daily protein for an adult. With the exception of Atlantic Bigeye Tuna and Pacific Blue Marin, all fish species have nutrients that are within the recommended dietary allowance in the USA.
All species show low amounts of sugars, fat, and saturated fatty acids, which is good for heart health. Fish contain low carbohydrates per serving. For anyone looking for a low-carb diet, fish is the answer.
It would appear that the calories from fish have weak negative relationship with the amount of carbohydrates and sugars. There is no significant relationship between fish calories and dietary fibers, cholesterol, and selenium. But, there is a strong relationship between fish calories and fat (r = 0.91), saturated fat (r = 0.90), and protein (r = 0.39).
Clearly seafood is an excellent source for protein, with low calories, and with most also containing low levels of fat and saturated fatty acids.
3. Ideal Replacement
Lastly, I wanted to quantify the potential for seafood to replace other food sources such as red meat or complement the likes of vegetables on a daily diet? Luckily, that is freely available. And, thanks to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), I was able to analyze and compare various foods of interest.
The two visualizations above suggest the following observations:
Fruits: They are a great source for sugars, dietary fiber, and carbohydrates. Produce has always been rich in starch and complex carbohydrates.
Vegetables: They rank high in dietary fiber and carbohydrates. Like fruits, they have little fat and protein while also registering the least amount of calories.
Red Meat: Beef has high amounts of protein and substantial fat. Similar to pork and poultry, red meat also has the most calories of the food groups analyzed.
Seafood: Has similar amount of carbs to red meat but with less calories. Same with dietary fiber and sugars. So if you are looking to cut your calorie intake but maintain levels of carbs, fiber and sugars, seafood is a great alternative to red meat. Seafood also has less fat compared to red meat while showing similar or slightly more protein levels. Lower calories, less fat and similar protein levels? Seafood is a great alternative to red meat, nutritionally!
Most seafood in the USA is not facing dangers of over fishing, allowing for sustainable fish populations to thrive. Though, there is room for improvement in some regions and for a few fish species, as this article [gated] clearly points out. Seafood has significantly lower levels of carbon footprint compared to keeping livestock and producing crops. Environmentally, a seafood diet helps the planet more than a red meat diet. At the same time, seafood offers similar or better nutritional values for protein, dietary fiber, and sugars with less fat and calories. Nutritionally, for most people, consuming a seafood diet is healthier than a diet of mostly red meat. On a personal note, analyzing the seafood industry helped make a significant shift in my daily diet. Knowing my consumption is becoming more environmental-friendly and nutritionally-sound is worth the adjustment to a new diet.
Fredrick Boshe is a graduate agricultural economics researcher. He is a dog whisperer and tree hugger in his free time.