Why fish is more nutritional than meat

A study places salmon, sardines and anchovies among the most beneficial types of fish due to their high protein content

Sardines being grilled
Sardines being grilled at a beach bar in Marbella, Spain.ANTONIO MARQUEZ (Getty Images)
Inés Sánchez-Manjavacas Castaño

Grilled, boiled or steamed, fish is nutritionally far more highly recommended than meat. In fact, there’s little that can trump it. A study published last month in the Communications Earth & Environment journal by RISE – Research Institutes of Sweden – concludes that some seafood such as salmon, mussels, anchovies and herring provide more protein than beef, pork or chicken. The research analyzed 41 different species, drawing on information from four official databases in Switzerland, Japan, Canada and the UN’s Food And Agricultural Organization (FAO). In addition to their protein content, these fish are also an important source of Omega-3 fatty acids, as flagged up by one of the authors of the study, Elinor Hallström.

According to the data, the best options are blue fish, including wild pink salmon and red salmon, and small wild pelagic fish – those found in the most superficial part of the oceans and seas – such as sardines, anchovies and herring, as well as farmed bivalves such as mussels and oysters. Seafood also wins out in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

The president of the Spanish Society of Dietetics and Food Sciences (SEDCA), Jesús Román Martínez, points out that seafood provides “very good quality” protein besides other nutrients such as selenium and iodine, substances that humans cannot manufacture by themselves and need to ingest.

As far as fat content is concerned, fish has a much lower ratio than meat. At most, fish might contain 12% total fat compared to meat’s 30%, according to Emilio Martínez, professor of physiology at the University of Granada (UGR) in Spain, and member of the university’s Institute of Nutrition and Food Technology.

A butcher shop in the Ventas market, Madrid.
A butcher shop in the Ventas market, Madrid. Álvaro García

Fish such as common carp and mild-tasting tilapia are especially rich in vitamin D, while the Atlantic scabbardfish is rich in Omega-3. This nutrient is especially important for the development of cognitive ability in growing children. It is also, according to Román Martínez, anti-inflammatory, and beneficial for vision and circulation, and so recommended for the elderly.

Despite the benefits of fish and other seafood with its low sodium and saturated fat content, Hallström says that “we tend to eat lower quantities than recommended.” Spain is the second-largest consumer in Europe, second only to Sweden, though this amounts to one serving of fish a week if that, says UGR’s Emilio Martínez. A few weeks ago, the Spanish Ministry of Consumer Affairs recommended a minimum of three servings a week. Román Martínez believes that the key to encouraging this level of consumption is through promoting different recipes.

Fish dishes in a restaurant in Lisbon.
Fish dishes in a restaurant in Lisbon.Horacio Villalobos (Corbis via Getty Images)

Farmed fish: nutritious and sustainable

The experts put the lack of consumption largely down to economic reasons and insist that fish should be made more affordable. “Most of the time, a kilo of meat is cheaper than a kilo of anchovies or salmon,” says UGR’s Martínez. He believes the solution is to deep-freeze at sea. This “lowers costs a lot,” he says, but it’s important not to process it afterwards so that it reaches the consumer with “all its nutritional properties intact.”

The problem is that, on many occasions, ultra-processed products, such as the not-so-healthy fish finger, are cheaper, and easier than fresh or frozen fish when it comes to preparation. “Nowadays almost nobody has time to cook and people try to buy food that is easy to prepare,” says Martínez.

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