Case Study : Family No. 3 Fish as the Main Protein Source

The third household we will visit is that of a young couple with an infant daughter. They are more health-conscious than their neighbors, and they believe their diet is healthier and their social consciousness higher. They read consumer publications and listen to nutrition programs. They have given up all meat, including fowl, for a number of reasons, and eat mainly fish and some shellfish as sources of protein. Financially, they feel that meat is too expensive; ounce for ounce is the most expensive form of complete protein. (Seven ounces of beef has the same quantity of protein as a cup of skim milk, but it costs many times more and contains about sixty grams of fat as well.) Nutritionally, they feel they should avoid saturated fats and they are aware that fish is generally less fat than meat. They know that chicken, while it has less fat than beef, only contains about 20 percent protein, not much different from beef. Besides, as they are aware, cattle, hogs, and chickens are fed numerous hormones, antibiotics, and other chemicals, and they prefer to avoid as many chemicals as possible for themselves and their child.


The Moral Perspective on Meat Eating

They also have moral reasons for preferring fish to meat or fowl. They have read about the conditions under which chickens, hogs, and cattle especially the young calves raised for veal which are denied iron to keep their flesh white-colored are raised and slaughtered, and they don’t want to be the beneficiaries of the cruel treatment of animals. They figure that fish lead-free lives, at least until they are caught, and that anyway, fish and especially shellfish have less sophisticated nervous systems, and therefore a lower degree of consciousness than birds or mammals like us.

This couple has eliminated all refined sugar from their diet, as well as the obvious saturated fat sources. They breast-feed their baby, and wouldn’t dream of offering it food containing refined sugar. They eat at least two servings of dark green leafy vegetables and several fruits every day. They’ve cut out white bread and are only eating whole grain bread. They eat a variety of grains. Some of their protein needs are met by dairy foods: skim milk, yogurt, cheese, and eggs. (They buy their eggs at the health food store, even though that costs them extra so that they are sure the eggs come from free-running rather than factory chickens.)

Yet, their dinners fall into the same pattern they learned from their parents: an animal food for complete protein; potatoes, rice, or noodles for carbohydrates; a green vegetable and a salad for vitamins and fiber. Since they have eliminated beef, veal, pork, and chicken from their diets, this means that almost every night they eat fish as the centerpiece of their meal.

Fish: Fatty, Perishable, and Painted with Preservatives

Eating fish every night is not as healthy a practice as they have been led to believe. For one thing, they are getting a lot more fat from it than they realize. Like land animals, fish vary enormously in their fat content. Some are upward of 20 percent fat. Albacore, herring, mackerel, salmon, shad, sardines, smelt, and tuna are among the fatty fish. If they want to reduce the fat content of their diet, they should stick to lean fish, with a fat content of under 5 percent, such as bass, halibut, flounder, perch, and sole.

Another problem with fish is that it is highly perishable. Once the fish is dead, digestive enzymes perforate the fish’s intestines and attack the entire carcass. Bacterial decomposition and contamination begin immediately and progress right through the entire storage time, even when it is frozen; fish should not be kept more than a week to ten days, even frozen. Extended storage in the freezer will cause the flesh of seafood to become dry, stringy, tough, and tasteless, at best, when it is finally cooked.

Our young couple sometimes buys their fish frozen. This is highly inadvisable. The United States Department of the Interior has discovered some frozen fish on the market over four years old!

By and large, this couple is too nutrition-conscious ever to buy frozen fish sticks. Besides possibly being old, fish sticks are often up to 50 percent bread and, like all but the freshest fish, may have a very high bacteria count.

But even the fresh fish our friends bought at the market to avoid the preservatives they know are found in meats may have been treated with preservatives. Sodium benzoate, sodium nitrite, hydrogen peroxide, ozone, and chlorine are some of the chemicals which can sometimes be found on fresh fish.

Shellfish Concentrate Bacteria and Pollutants

This couple is very fond of shellfish, and eat it as often as they can afford to. Somehow, they have never been warned not to eat clams, mussels, oysters, crabs, or lobsters that have died before being cooked. (If a clam or oyster shell is not tightly closed, it has died.) They should be roasted or boiled alive. Unpleasant as that sounds, it is better than allowing a moment’s extra multiplication for the microorganisms that concentrate in shellfish. Oysters have been known to concentrate poliovirus twenty to sixty times greater than in the surrounding water. Shellfish can cause polio, infectious hepatitis, meningitis, typhoid, strep throat, gastroenteritis. Perhaps the Jewish kosher dietary prohibitions against shellfish are sensible health precautions.

Then there is the problem of water pollution. Our highly conscious young couple is well aware that this problem exists, but perhaps they don’t realize quite how bad the situation is.

Except for sea clams and sea mussels, shellfish live in estuaries that are filled with the discharge of sewage. Shellfish nourish themselves by pumping up to 300 gallons of water per day through their tiny bodies, if the water contains sewage, then so do the shellfish. Thousands of hairlike cilia paddle water containing suspended particles, microorganisms, sand, and dissolved gases through the organism. The mouth, stomach, and intestines may contain substantial quantities of waste products, which may be one of the sources of the many disease microorganisms they contain.

Shellfish are not the only water creatures to absorb pollutants from the water. Other fish do, too. Family Number Three is certainly aware of the problem. They try to eat mainly freshwater fish since they feel the ocean areas near the land, where most fish live, are too polluted.

Freshwater Fish and Domestic Water Pollution

What they are not aware of is that thirty-three states have waterways so contaminated with mercury that no fish should be consumed from them, and mercury is only one of many industrial pollutants. Originally, it was believed that inorganic mercury from industrial sources which is the primary way that mercury gets into the water supply in America would just settle harmlessly to the bottom and be inactivated.


Regrettably, this is not the case. Bacteria in the water converts inorganic mercury into highly toxic, highly absorbable methyl mercury. Methyl mercury then travels up the food chain small fish are eaten by large fish which are eaten by still larger fish. Each time one fish is consumed by another fish, the concentration of mercury is increased many times. By the time the young couple eats their fish they are consuming a load of mercury.

Unfortunately, the mercury they are ingesting tonight will be with them for the rest of their life. Mercury poisoning is not uncommon and this young couple and their daughter, if they don’t change their eating habits, might suffer in ten years from tremors, irritability, fatigue, headaches, metallic taste in their mouth, kidney damage, even insanity. Do you remember the Mad Hatter in A lice’s Adventures in Wonderland? He was a figment of Lewis Carroll’s imagination. But real hatters did used to go mad from mercury poisoning. It wasn’t uncommon for a hatmaker to lose his sanity after a lifetime of breathing fumes from mercury-treated felt. Mercury poisoning is very serious.


In addition to chemical pollution, perhaps our friends are not aware of all the nuclear pollution that ends up in the world of fish. The fish are attracted to the warm water near-atomic reactors. They may consume plankton and sea vegetation and other fish that have absorbed radioactive waste that has leaked out of these reactors, and become radioactive to some degree.

Family Number Three would be frightened out of consuming all of the fish they eat if they knew how serious the water pollution problem is. They would certainly, at least, limit their intake of fish to the very smallest ones, in which the pollutants would not be so concentrated: sardines, herring, whitebait. They would avoid tuna, swordfish, and other sea giants. And they would begin to investigate how to eliminate fish from their diet altogether, in such a way that they would not cheat themselves of necessary protein.

The best person they might turn to for advice on this subject lives in our Household Number Four.

Fish has many advantages over meat or poultry as a source of protein, not the least of which is moral: they are not subjected to crowded, tortured living conditions. Fish is often a less expensive form of concentrated protein than meat. Lean fish such as bass, halibut, Bounder, perch, and sole are low in fat and high in vitamins. (However, the fatty fish albacore, herring, mackerel, salmon, shad, sardines, smelt, tuna may contain upward of 20 percent fat.)

But the pollution of our rivers, streams, and ocean beds has altered fish’s chemical composition, and they, too, maybe doused with preservatives to inhibit the growth of the bacteria that contaminate fish from the moment it dies and that continue to spread even when the fish is frozen.

Shellfish are particularly dangerous since they concentrate so much of the industrial pollutants, viruses, and bacteria from the often sewage-laden water with which they nourish themselves. Polio, infectious hepatitis, meningitis, typhoid, strep throat, and gastroenteritis have been linked to shellfish.

“Freshwater” fish are often contaminated with methyl mercury and even radioactive, nuclear wastes, while “ocean” shellfish, with the exception of sea clams and sea mussels, are full of sewage. The smaller fish, at least, contain lower levels of pollutants.



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