The rundown on lean fish

Published 11:40 am Tuesday, September 19, 2023

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As we wrap up our series on “food from the sea,” our topic today is lean fish. Of the 20,000 species of ocean fish, most are edible. Indeed, all fish are not edible. Some harbor toxins in their tissues or glands, while others are unsafe due to their high levels of mercury. Research suggests that over 90% of fish species are considered food grade. 

While there are many ways to classify fish, most culinary fish can be categorized as lean or fatty. Lean ocean fish such as flounder, tuna, cod, haddock and sole are very low in saturated and total fat. In fact, lean fish holds less fat than chicken, turkey, bison, duck, beef or pork. Since fat carries nine calories per gram, lean fish is great for those trying to reduce their caloric intake. 

Fish are also easier to digest than their terrestrial counterparts. First, protein is digested at a higher rate than fat, so leaner cuts of meat tend to digest more quickly. Also, fish has a unique texture, compared to other meats. Textural firmness is correlated with muscle fiber density and properties of muscle collagen. That’s because the muscles of fish are layered rather than bundled as in other vertebrates, and why cooked fish tends to flake. 

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Lean fish can be a very useful weapon in the battle to lose weight. That’s because fish typically yield less fat and calories compared to other protein sources like beef or pork. Also, the high-quality protein found in lean fish helps you feel fuller for longer, so you eat less.  

Lean fish are generally low in mercury. Mercury is a natural element found in soil and rocks and is released into the air as those materials decay. Mercury passes into tiny plants and animals living in water, and then into the fish that eat them, but can be harmful if too much of it enters the body. When it comes to canned tuna, the more expensive Albacore tuna, particularly canned white or solid, tends to hold higher mercury levels than the less expensive light canned tuna. It should be noted that pregnant women and young children should be particularly cautious of mercury contamination. 

Most lean or lower-fat fish species hold less saturated fat than red meats and are on par with other white meats, such as chicken or turkey. And most are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, nutrients that help to build and maintain a healthy body as they are incorporated into cellular membranes of all tissues. Omega 3 serves as an energy source and helps keep the heart, lungs, blood vessels and immune system functioning properly.  

Interested in a few fun fish facts? Most fish don’t have eyelids…except for sharks. Think ocean fish contain a lot of salt? In fact, more than 240 fish species contain so little salt that doctors recommend them in salt-free diets. Also, the longest-lived vertebrate is a fish—the Greenland shark, which can live up to 400 years. Sailfish, swordfish and marlin are the fastest fish in the ocean, reaching speeds up to 70 mph. Catfish have over 27,000 taste buds, whereas humans have only 9,000. 


David Crocker is a nutritionist and master personal trainer. Questions? Email him at or text to (864) 494-6215.