You care about the world’s health and your own. How can salmon fit in? 12/31/2020
I remember the year I didn’t eat pork. I had read a wonderful book, Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig, by Mark Essig, which made it impossible for me not to see an unappreciated and highly intelligent and affectionate animal when staring at frozen sausage links.
I wouldn’t eat rabbit when I had a pet rabbit, and couldn’t eat lamb for five days while hiking in Wales on hills of frolicking lambies. On the last day, I tried a bit of lamb and it was astoundingly delicious.
If you’ve ever decided to give up meat, did you have one reason at the top of your mind? Chances are your logic combined with a visceral or emotional response: You just felt better without meat on your plate.
There’s no arguing with those emotions. But emotions can change with more information. Adding wild salmon to a plant-based diet in this new year can actually serve vegetarian goals. It isn’t a slip-up or compromise. It can help you save animals from pain, live sustainably, and improve or preserve your health.
Let’s start with your health:
Fish is associated with a lower risk of heart disease and stroke
For more than 18 years, British scientists followed more than 48,000 adults who, when the study began, had no history of cardiovascular disease. This large group included 7,508 people who ate fish but no meat, and 16,254 vegetarians. By the end of the study, the fish-eaters were 13 percent less likely to have developed ischemic heart disease (the kind caused by insufficient blood flow), compared to meat-eaters. Vegetarians did a bit better, with a 22 percent lower chance.
But vegetarians had a 20 percent higher rate of stroke (mostly hemorrhagic stroke) than meat-eaters. Other research in Japan, the authors noted, links low intake of animal products with more deaths from stroke.
However, the fish-eaters, a.k.a. pescatarians, did not have a higher stroke risk.
So, at least according to this British study, to lower your risk of both heart disease and stroke you might eat fish but no meat (Tong et al., 2019).
(For the non-vegetarians reading this, it’s worth noting that you might be able to lower the apparent health risks of meat if you stay away from processed or industrial-feedlot varieties and stick to grass-fed, grass-finished organic meat).
Fish is associated with a lower risk of cancer
Hundreds of studies demonstrate that eating lots of fruits and vegetables cuts the risk of certain cancers. However, you can do that without being a vegetarian. The British data also found that pescatarians had a lower risk of certain cancers than vegetarians (Harvard Health Letter, 2020). An earlier study of U.S. Seventh Day Adventists followed for seven years found that vegetarians who also ate fish had the lowest risk of colorectal cancer, beating both vegans and meat-eaters (Orlich et al., 2015). Why might this be? Read on.
Fish can help ensure your diet is nutritionally balanced
In the British data set, vegetarians and vegans had lower circulating levels of vitamin B12, vitamin D, essential amino acids, and long-chain omega-3s than either fish or meat-eaters. Nutritional deficiencies may explain why, for example, British vegans had a higher risk of bone fractures than meat-eaters, for example (Tong et al, 2020). Again, eating fish was associated with better outcomes: pescatarians beat vegans on fracture risk.
Adding wild salmon to your diet just makes good nutritional sense: it is a uniquely rich source of easily assimilated vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids.
But wait--isn’t salmon full of mercury?
Not a problem.
Wild salmon is pure and safe
Vegetarians and vegans often are rightly concerned about the chemicals pumped into factory-farm meat and fish. Wild salmon isn’t given antibiotics, and you’d have to eat absurd amounts to put yourself at risk from mercury. As I reported in September, a pregnant woman could eat up to 53 pounds of salmon a week without putting her fetus at risk of reduced I.Q. from mercury (Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, 2014).
Alaskan wild salmon is the purest salmon you can find.
A staunch vegan might respond at this point, “I’m not going to live on soy-cheese pizza, I’m able to pay sustained attention to my nutrition, and it makes me sick to think I could be eating a living creature that died in pain for my sake, even if the creature isn’t full of a toxic trace metal! Why should any animal die to feed me?”
Fast answer: A fish that doesn’t feed you will probably suffer more pain, not less.
The animal welfare question
We can see a fish thrash in a net and it looks painful. While there is still an argument that fish do not have consciousness and do not feel pain (Key, 2015), many disagree (Jabr, 2018) and we might want to err on the side of avoiding even possible pain.
It’s clear that for most of its life, a wild salmon does not suffer the unnecessary human-caused misery of caged factory farm animals such as chickens and pigs. Wild salmon are free to roam.
We must admit we cannot know all aspects of the question regarding animal welfare, but there is no doubt that a salmon that is not caught by a fisherman nonetheless faces a violent, and often prolonged death. As Vital Choice founder Randy Hartnell observes, “Nature is not kind. Salmon that do escape fishermen's nets can experience a brutal odyssey of predation, starvation, and slow death. I have often witnessed bears catching and eviscerating live salmon, and it’s common to see scavenging birds pecking the eyes out of spent fish as they lay gasping in the shallows after spawning. A quick demise at the hands of a human predator is humane in comparison.”
And what about the planet? Don’t we need to live on plants alone to keep the planet going?
Wild salmon runs are sustainable
In Alaska, biologists control the salmon fisheries, under a state constitution that requires that the fisheries be sustainable. Salmon feed on ocean plants and animals, and sustain more than 130 other species – from the birds, fish, and amphibians that eat their eggs to the bears and eagles that eat the salmon. The fuel required for harvest is small, compared to the fuel needed for most other protein sources.
Unless you grow all your own food, and even then, you can’t assume that the other food you eat will have a more beneficial impact. Are you eating lots of soy? Soy is an efficient way to feed humans. But most of the world’s soybeans are fed to farmed animals, and the growing crop has terrible effects: deforestation, biodiversity loss, rising carbon emissions, soil erosion, and water contamination (Melvin, 2020).
As the world population grows, we’ll need more protein. Seafood remains an untapped resource. As an international team recently argued in Nature, seafood can sustainably account for up to about a quarter of the extra protein required (Costello et al, 2020).
This leads us to the spiritual case for eating wild Alaska salmon. The First Peoples who needed salmon to survive honored it. The modern fishers who have historically depended on salmon, who know it best, treasure it. They want the salmon run to go on forever and feed us. They see us as bound intrinsically to the sea and its creatures. We’re animals and we need animals to live.
I tried all these arguments on one of my childhood friends, and she responded, “Would an article dare tell those who follow a kosher diet they’d be better off not to?”
I understand the objection. People have strong convictions about food, which may be cultural, religious, science-based, or all of the above, and it's vital for all of us to respect them. There are also some who avoid fish or meat simply because they dislike them, and there are those who believe a carefully chosen regime of supplements can fill nutrient gaps in a vegetarian diet. Those points of view deserve our respect as well.
So thank you for reading. I remain sympathetic to the vegetarian ethic and have no wish to offend. I offer this additional information to any who may wish to use it.
Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Advice About Eating Fish. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/food/consumers/advice-about-eating-fish. Accessed September 19, 2020.
Costello, C., Cao, L., Gelcich, S. et al. The future of food from the sea. Nature https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2616-y Published August 19, 2020.
Jabr F. It's Official: Fish Feel Pain. Smithsonian.com. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/fish-feel-pain-180967764/. Published January 8, 2018.
Harvard Health Letter. Becoming a vegetarian. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/becoming-a-vegetarian Updated April 15, 2020.
Key B. Fish do not feel pain and its implications for understanding phenomenal consciousness. Biol Philos. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4356734/ Published 2015.
Melvin M. Is Soy Bad for the Environment? https://www.foodunfolded.com/article/is-soy-bad-for-the-environment Published August 6, 2020.
Orlich MJ, Singh PN, Sabaté J, et al. Vegetarian dietary patterns and the risk of colorectal cancers. JAMA Intern Med. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25751512/ Published May, 2015.
Thalheimer, J. The Pescetarian Diet. https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/040715p32.shtml Published April, 2015.
Tong TYN, Appleby PN, Bradbury KE, et al. Risks of ischaemic heart disease and stroke in meat eaters, fish eaters, and vegetarians over 18 years of follow-up: results from the prospective EPIC-Oxford study. https://www.bmj.com/content/366/bmj.l4897. Published September 4, 2019.
Tong, T.Y.N., Appleby, P.N., Armstrong, M.E.G. et al. Vegetarian and vegan diets and risks of total and site-specific fractures: results from the prospective EPIC-Oxford study. BMC Med 18, https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-020-01815-3 Published November 23, 2020.