The foods we choose to eat can affect our mood and brain health, in addition to our body, weight, and sense of self. The association between food and mood is mediated by gut health and the microbiome. Our microbiome is composed of “good bacteria” that protect the lining of the intestine, provide a barrier against toxins and “bad bacteria,” limit inflammation, improve nutrient absorption, and activate neural pathways that travel directly between the gut and the brain. To keep the microbiome loaded with these “good bacteria,” we must fill our bodies with nutrient rich foods, including healthy fish. Fish and seafood are chock-full of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins D and B12, folate and magnesium. Tuna, salmon, rainbow trout, pollock, crab, lobster, clams, oysters, muscles and octopus rank highly on the antidepressant food scale, created by Dr. Laura LaChance and Dr. Drew Ramsey.
We know that cooking seafood and fish at home may be new for many of us, but don’t be intimidated. This guide will help you navigate shellfish and fish, plus offer a few tips about incorporating these brain foods into your cooking repertoire. Read on to learn more about the how the specific nutrients in seafood contribute to mental health and about to how you can start incorporating more healthy fish into your diet.
Fatty fish, such as tuna and salmon, are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Both contain substantial amounts of vitamin D, vitamin B12, and magnesium. Plus, they’re extremely versatile; they can be eaten cooked or raw, in salad form, and can be found fresh or canned.
Cooked tuna and salmon are great protein additions to any meal. Both of these healthy fish are often prepared pink in the middle. Coat salmon fillets or tuna steaks with a thin layer of olive oil, sprinkle on salt and pepper to taste, and grill 4-5 minutes per side on medium high heat. Tuna can also be sauteed in a frying pan over medium-high heat. Tuna Niçoise is a classic, hearty French salad recipe made with simply cooked tuna, potatoes, green beans and hard boiled eggs, served with an olive oil dressing. Given it’s multiple components, it’s a great main dish to make for a crowd, as guests can choose the items they like best! Salmon is often prepared baked. For an easy meal with minimal clean-up, make a salmon foil-packet. Combine salmon with your favorite fresh herbs, lemons and garlic, and wrap in aluminum foil. Then bake at 375°F for 15-20 minutes.
Tuna and salmon can also be found canned. Most often, the canned varieties are used to make tuna or salmon salads that can be added to greens or sandwiches. To prepare a simple healthy tuna or salmon salad, combine the canned fish with 2 tablespoons of avocado, mayo, or Greek yogurt, a stalk of chopped celery, and a tablespoon of chopped onion, plus salt and pepper to taste. These salads also make great, inexpensive, on-the-go snacks—just pack in a small tupperware with a few whole grain crackers. Canned tuna and salmon can also be used in tons of other creative recipes. Check out this tuna, kale and egg salad and these quinoa salmon cakes with citrus salsa.
Consumed raw, these healthy fish make for a light and nutritious meal. Raw tuna and salmon sashimi, sushi, or maki rolls can be found at any sushi restaurant or Japanese take-out spot. Sashimi is just the fish itself, while sushi and maki rolls also include rice. Ask for your sushi or roll to be made with brown rice instead of white to up the fiber and mineral content. Be careful of rolls that contain spicy sauces (they are often mayo-based), and any fried additions like shrimp tempura—both can add extra, unneeded calories. Plus, remember to dip lightly in soy sauce. Just one tablespoon can contain almost 900 mg of sodium. Always choose soy sauce of the low-sodium variety and dip only when we needed. If you’re looking to liven up your rolls, opt for fresh add-ins, like avocado, carrot and cucumber, and choose ginger and wasabi to add extra flavor at a fraction of the calories.
Other tasty dishes that often include sushi-grade raw tuna or salmon include ceviche and poke. Ceviche is a dish found in Mexican and South American cooking that is composed of raw or cured fish or shellfish, flavored with citrus juice and other seasonings. Its delicious and fresh flavor makes it the perfect appetizer or side. Check out this recipe for a simple tuna ceviche with avocado and cilantro. Traditional poke is a Hawaiian dish composed of diced raw fish with sauce over rice. A customizable dish, American chefs have been getting quite creative with their poke dishes, using quinoa, cauliflower rice, or zucchini noodles in place of traditional rice. Plus, the add-ins are endless—think avocado, mango, puffed rice, onion, edamame, spinach and kale as a few examples—making poke a perfectly balanced meal. This healthy and delicious recipe combines salmon, avocado, grapefruit, wasabi peas and cucumber on top of a base of greens. If you are unable to find sushi-grade salmon or tuna in your area, you can easily substitute cooked fish for the raw!
Salmon’s cousin, rainbow trout is also rich in omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin B12. The healthy fish is especially rich in protein, with a 4 oz fillet containing about 16 grams. It has a nutty flavor with a pale pink flesh, similar to salmon. The fish are small, perfect for an individual-sized portion. You can buy the fish either whole or filleted.
Rainbow trout is most often grilled whole or baked. Although preparing a whole fish may seem intimidating, given their small size, rainbow trout are the perfect fish to experiment with. Using a fish basket makes grilling a whole trout straightforward and easy. This recipe seasons the fish with dill, parsely, tarragon and lemon and cooks the fish over medium-high heat. Whole fish not only makes for a beautiful and Instagram-worthy meal, it’s also much healthier than your average hotdog and hamburger cookout. During colder months, the fish can also be prepared baked. This garlic butter rainbow trout features fillets cooked in foil. For a more creative take, rainbow trout can also be used in fish tacos. This taco dish combines the fish with a bacon-pineapple jam spread on top of a corn tortilla.
Pollock is a white fish that contains large amounts of omega-3s, magnesium and vitamin B12. As part of the cod family, the fish has a mild flavor and slightly coarse texture. Although the name may sound unfamiliar, odds are you’ve consumed pollock before, as it is commonly used in fish sticks and the English classic, fish and chips. The species is increasing in popularity and can now be found in many grocery stores, either sold as fresh fillets or in the frozen foods section. Additionally, this healthy fish is often well-priced and makes for an inexpensive brain food option.
Pollock can be baked, steamed, poached or broiled. Its flakey texture takes particularly well to breading. For a healthier (and more adult) take on fish sticks, coat pollock fillets (sub for cod) in an egg white and mustard mix, then roll in whole grain panko bread crumbs and dip into a creamy greek yogurt lemon caper sauce. To make an easy clean-up dinner, broil fillets and cherry tomatoes on a pan lined with aluminum foil. Serve with brown rice for a complete meal. For a healthy date night meal, prepare this carrot and coconut poached pollock with basmati rice.
Crab and lobster are examples of crustaceans, a type of seafood with segmented bodies that are protected with shells, both thin and thick. Crab and lobster are both protein-rich, with 3 oz containing about 15 grams and about 18 grams, respectively. The crustaceans contain B12 and omega-3 fatty acids, as well as micronutrients such as zinc, selenium and copper. Plus, both are very low in calories, with a 3 oz serving of crab containing about 70 calories and a 3 oz serving of lobster containing about 100 calories. You may have heard that these seafoods are high in cholesterol. Although this is true, research shows that dietary cholesterol is not linked to the cholesterol levels in our blood. In fact, the American Heart Association recommends eating seafood weekly, as research has shown that seafood can lessen the risk of heart disease, stroke, heart failure, sudden cardiac death and congestive heart failure.
Deemed as foods reserved for special occasions, many of us don’t regularly cook crab or lobster at home. We want to change that! Purchasing lobsters during their peak season, from late-June to late-December, can help to lessen the cost. Plus, during this time, the lobsters are bigger, giving you more bang for your buck. Buying the crustacean directly from the fishermen at your local seafood store can also help to bring the cost down. Just remember, fresh lobster is usually sold whole and alive. You must keep them cold, covered, and alive, and cook them the same day you buy them. On the other hand, frozen lobster, in both tail and meat form, can be found year-round at almost any grocery store (including Walmart).
If you choose to purchase whole, live lobsters, check out this video for tips and tricks on cooking them. If you purchase just the tails, here’s a simple and delicious, 10-minute recipe for broiled lobster. Lobster tails can also be boiled – just drop into boiling, salted water, and cook for 8-12 minutes. Once the meat is cooked, either consume it on its own or make it a part of another dish. The possibilities for using lobster are endless! Make a healthy lobster roll, spicy pasta dish (though, swap out white pasta for whole grain) or a hearty corn and lobster stew.
Crab is the more-accessible and less-expensive of the two. You can purchase whole crabs or just the legs. Crab meat is also often sold on its own without the shell. Make sure to stay clear of the imitation stuff that comes in a can or pouch. This is a processed product made with a mixture of white fish with starches and coloring added. You can also find lobster and crab frozen dishes at the grocery store. Although fried cakes, mac and cheese and ravioli may taste delicious, most of these dishes are not the best for you. Instead, stick to the seafood in its whole or lump meat form for an equally tasty but much healthier meal.
Crab is just as versatile as lobster. Whole crabs and crab legs can be boiled, steamed, grilled or broiled, and just like lobster, can be eaten as is or in a variety of dishes. For a healthy version of classic crab cakes, check out this baked recipe. Crab dip is a great alternative to other cream-laden dips (think spinach and artichoke or queso). Crab can also be used to make a luxurious pasta dish. This one is made with prosecco and lemon for a dinner that is worthy of any celebration.
Oysters, clams, and muscles are examples of bivalves, which are types of mollusks. They have compressed bodies enclosed by a shell consisting of two hinged parts. With a briny, ocean-like flavor, these bivalves are extremely nutritious. As bottom feeders, they get their nutrients by ingesting microscopic plants and animals of the ocean. Loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, iron and vitamins B12 and B6, these seafood options make the ultimate brain-healthy proteins. They are are a sustainable choice and, given that they are at the bottom of the food chain, bivalves do not accumulate toxins (i.e. mercury) like other fish.
In addition to the above benefits, oysters are also rich in zinc. Toted as an aphrodisiac, oysters are often advertised as a romantic food, especially around Valentine’s Day. Oysters are normally consumed raw, slurped right out of the shell. Eaten as a delicacy, they are common in seafood restaurants and places that have a raw bar. But they can be also be served at home. Oysters can be purchased at your local seafood store or a specialty store like Whole Foods. To be eaten raw, they must be shucked just prior to serving, meaning the shell must be pried open. This can be done with a knife or can-opener. Oysters can also be roasted or broiled. This recipe coats the shellfish with a breadcrumb and garlic mixture prior to broiling.
Clams and mussels are less expensive and more accessible than oysters. Similarly, they can be purchased at seafood markets and speciality stores (i.e. Whole Foods). There are many different types of clams, including hard shell, soft shell, razor, manilla and cockles. Check out this guide to learn more. Make sure the shells are closed and there’s no strong fishy smell prior to buying both mussels and clams. Before cooking, scrub the shells with a hard brush under cold running water to get rid of any sand or additional grit. (Of note, smaller shellfish are often easier to clean). Then, mussels and clams are often served steamed, in flavorful broths and, either by themselves or over pasta dishes. These seafood can adapt to any flavor profile and are used in Spanish, French, American, Italian and Thai cooking. This spicy linguine with clams and mussels combines the seafood with white wine, vegetable broth, shallots and garlic for a flavorful dish (sub whole grain linguine to up the health factor). The shellfish can also be served grilled or broiled (like the oysters above). Grilling the shellfish gives them a smokey flavor. This grilled recipe combines mussels and clams with almonds, mint and garlic. Plus, clams and mussels can also be part of other dishes, such as soups. Check out this lightened-up clam chowder and this coconut milk mussel soup.
Octopus is the most common type of edible cephalopod, another category of mollusk. It’s rich in iron, selenium and vitamin B12. Octopus can be purchased fresh at some fish stores and speciality grocery stores. But if you can’t find it fresh, your local supermarket will most likely have a frozen variety. If you’re purchasing a whole octopus, you will want to remove the beak and ink sac before cooking and serving. Most frozen varieties will already have these removed. For more on purchasing and preparing, check out this guide. The shellfish can then be grilled, boiled, braised, poached or fried. Boil the fish for 15-20 minutes per pound in vegetable or seafood stock and add herbs of your choice for extra flavor. Roasting octopus takes some extra time but is well worth it to reach the desired and delicious tender texture. To roast, place the salted seafood in a pan at 250 degrees and cook for 2 hours. This roasted recipe combines octopus with potatoes and white wine for a hearty seafood dinner. If choosing the grilling option, you will want to boil or roast the octopus first, to ensure it is fully cooked and tenderized. This flavorful Greek grilled octopus recipe marinates the seafood with oregano and chili to infuse flavor. Octopus is often also served as the protein in salads. This fresh and tasty grilled octopus salad places the protein on a bed of frisee and tops with a shallot vinaigrette.
Fish and seafood are nutritious and delicious protein options. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that we consume at least 8 oz of the above options weekly. Filled with brain-healthy nutrients, consume these proteins in place of chicken, steak or turkey. Plus, healthy fish and seafood are fun and easy to prepare. Experiment with the above recipes for a tasty and healthy way to and add variety to your weekly dinner rotation. We promise your families and loved ones will enjoy the ocean flavors too!
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