Are Fish and Chicken Healthy Foods?

Are Fish and Chicken Healthy Foods?
February 24, 2017 No Comments Nutrition Brian Fulton

Make no mistake… fish is meat.

– And yes, chicken is meat too!

(* Note – many hyperlinks in this article will take you to Nutritionfacts.org, a vetted website that provides evidence-based articles and videos on nutrition. To view the study sources, click on “Sources cited” to view the evidence source for the video information.)

Definition: “Meat is animal flesh that is eaten as food.”  {Lawrie, R. A.; Ledward, D. A. (2006). Lawrie’s meat science (7th ed.). Cambridge: Woodhead Publishing Limited.}

I have had recent conversations with several well-meaning people who somehow think that the term meat only refers to beef or pork. For example, many people will say, “I only eat meat occasionally”, but when questioned about their diet, one quickly finds out that they are eating meat with most of their meals, somehow thinking that fish, seafood, poultry and even ham and bacon are not meat.  (???) Strictly speaking, according to some dictionary definitions, meat refers specifically to the flesh of mammals, so in that sense they could be partially right. However, there is a sense among the general public that chicken and seafood are health foods, whereas red meat is not, and so by saying that something is not ‘meat’ implies that it does not carry the risk of other types of animal flesh. In this sense, they are clearly wrong.

Let’s back up a little bit to see why people might think in this manner. Back in 1977, the bipartisan Senate Select Committee on Human and Nutrition Needs published the McGovern Report, which painted a scathing picture of the state of nutrition in America.  Guideline number two, “to decrease meat consumption to lower saturated fat intake” in particular, drew a lot of media attention. To make a long story short, politics won out over health. The senate committee was disbanded and the job of creating dietary guidelines was handed over to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). This organization has the bizarre dual role of both promoting the agricultural industry, and advising Americans on what to eat, putting it in a clear conflict of interest with agricultural products that do not promote health. Many have described this as letting the foxes guard the hen house. Handing over the dietary advisory role to the USDA was a massive win for industry, but a big loss for citizens who clearly deserve impartial, evidence-based dietary recommendations. From that day forward, no dietary guideline would ever tell Americans to eat less of any specific agricultural product ever again. Guidelines could tell Americans to eat more of specific foods (e.g. fruits, vegetables, grains), but instructions concerning foods they should eat less of are always couched in scientific terms (e.g. cholesterol, saturated fat, trans fat etc.). This is simply a coded way of saying, “eat less animal products”, but as you might expect, industry would oppose any direct wording. At any rate, the damage was done, and the beef industry suffered a permanent setback. At that point dairy, egg, poultry and seafood boards actively marketed their products, delineating them from red (mammalian) meat, the bad boy of animal foods.

Red meat took a further hit in 2015 when the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) determined after looking at hundreds of studies that processed meat is a Type 1 (definite) carcinogen, and that flesh from mammals is a Type 2 (probable) carcinogen. (*Note that the term, processed meat refers to ANY processed animal flesh, not just beef or mammalian muscle.) So, clearly processed meat and red meat are not healthy foods to be eating; but what about other types of animal flesh, such as poultry, fish and seafood? What health risks are associated with these foods?

 

Health Concerns with Poultry
  1. Weight Gain As you will see in this video, chicken consumption is actually associated with more weight gain than other meat! This certainly came as a surprise to me when researching this article.
  2. Lymphoma and Leukemia risk– Increased lymphoma and leukemia risk has been found among those eating just a small serving of chicken a day.
  3. UTIs– The E.coli strains residing in the rectal flora serve as a reservoir for urinary tract infections (UTIs). The source of this E.Coli has been definitively determined to be poultry.
  4. SalmonellaSalmonella presence in animal products originates from animal feces due to slaughtering and/or meat-handling practices. When researchers at the Emerging Pathogens Institute ranked foodborne pathogens to figure out which was the worst, number one on their list was Salmonella. It is the leading cause of food-poisoning-related hospitalization, and the number one cause of food-poisoning-related death. Every year hundreds of thousands of Americans are salmonella-poisoned by poultry, and yet it remains legal to sell meat proven to be contaminated. A recent CDC survey found that salmonella was found to be highest in turkey and chicken, when compared to beef and pork.
  5. Antibiotic-Resistant Salmonella– In the 2013 the FDA Retail Meat Report found that more than a quarter of the salmonella found contaminating retail chicken breasts were resistant to not one, but five or more different classes of antibiotic treatment drugs!
  6. Arsenic– Arsenic-containing drugs are intentionally added to poultry feed to reduce the parasite burden and to make the meat look pinker. However, cooking the meat converts these drugs into carcinogenic inorganic arsenic compounds. The FDA has admitted that there is no safe level of this kind of arsenic.
  7. Chemicals and Banned Drugs– The testing of chicken feathers for chemical residues has found the presence of banned drugs and a broad range of pharmaceuticals.

 

Health Concerns with Fish & Seafood
  1. Diabetes Risk– In the U.S., consumption of one serving of fish per week is associated with a 5% increased risk of diabetes, making fish consumption about 80% worse than red meat for diabetes risk.
  2. Pregnancy Concerns– The fact that we even have guidelines around fish consumption and pregnancy should be a red flag concerning consumption of seafood. A study in the Journal of Toxicological Sciences suggests avoiding seafood for one full year before getting pregnant due to concerns around mercury and the developing fetus. Unfortunately, the other industrial pollutants in fish can take longer for our body to remove. These include certain dioxins, PBCs, and DDT metabolites.
  3. Increased Suicide Risk– This one really surprised me. It sounds rather counter intuitive, but several studies have found a link between fish consumption and increased chance of suicide.
  4. Ciguatera– Ciguatera is one of the most common forms of food poisoning. It which occurs after the consumption of fish contaminated with neurotoxins, produced by certain microalgae that build up the food chain. Just a few bites can be sufficient to induce the condition. Disturbingly, affected fish looks, smells, and tastes normal. Unfortunately ciguatoxins are resistant to all forms of cooking. The Center for Disease Control suggests avoidance of high-risk fish altogether. The American Medical Association put out a similar advisory, suggesting that the only way to prevent it is to avoid eating fish like red snapper or grouper, but the problem is that a third of fish sold in the United States is mislabelled, so you don’t know what you’re getting.
  5. Beta-N-methylamino-L-alanine (BMAA) can be found in high concentrations in aquatic animals in many areas of the world. BMAA is a neurotoxin generated by blue-green algae that has been linked to several neurodegenerative diseases such as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
  6. Migratory Skin Worms are always a risk when consuming any uncooked seafood, such as sushi. This video introduces you to the magical world of migratory skin worms.
  7. Xenoestrogens– Fish appear to be the most important source of human exposure to industrial pollutants such as alkylphenol xenoestrogens.
  8. Dioxins– Farm-raised catfish have been found to contain dioxins, a chemical for which no acceptable human levels have ever been established.
  9. Other Pollutants– What other industrial pollutants build up in the aquatic fish chain? Here links to other videos.

 

But what about fish oil? Isn’t fish oil supposed to be healthy for us? The original recommendations to consume fish oil for cardiac health came from the famous DART trial back in the 80’s involving 2,000 men. Those advised to eat fatty fish had a 29% reduction in mortality. However, in the subsequent DART-2 trial of 3,000 men, and those advised to eat oily fish and particularly those supplied with fish oil capsules actually had a higher risk of cardiac death. A recent systematic review and meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association looked at all the best randomized clinical trials evaluating the effects of omega-3’s on lifespan, cardiac death, sudden death, heart attack, and stroke. Overall, they found no protective benefit for overall mortality, heart disease mortality, sudden cardiac death, heart attack, or stroke.

For more information on fish and your health, visit the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

 

Health Risks Common to Poultry, Fish and All Other Animal Foods

ALL animal foods increase our risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, obesity, hypertension as well as several other common chronic diseases.  Poultry and/or seafood might appear less harmful than mammalian flesh, but these foods still carry many of the risks inherent other animal flesh, such as:

  1. Cholesterol High cholesterol levels may raise heart disease risk; the number one cause of death in the U.S. Higher buildup of cholesterol in our blood appears to be linked to higher atherosclerosis in our coronary arteries. Cholesterol crystallization may be what causes atherosclerotic plaque rupture, the trigger for heart attacks. The Institute of Medicine has not set upper limits for cholesterol consumption because any intake level above zero increases LDL, our ‘bad’ cholesterol. Higher cholesterol levels have also been linked to greater overall incidence of cancer[i], and in fact, cancer has been found to feed on cholesterol.  Animal foods constitute the only dietary source of cholesterol.
  2. Dietary Fat- To give you a ballpark idea of the fat content in seafood and poultry, here is a list containing the fat content (as a percentage of calories)[ii].  Approximately 15 – 30% of the fat in fish is saturated fat, and about 32% of the fat in chicken is saturated fat.
Food Item % Calories from Fat
Wild Atlantic Salmon 40%
Farmed Atlantic Salmon 58%
Tilapia 15%
Shrimp 23%
Crab 12%
Whole chicken (boilers, fryers) , skin on 63%
Whole duck, skin on 87%
Whole turkey, skin on 35%

 

  1. Carnatine, Choline and TMAO. All animal foods contain carnitine. Within 24 hours of dietary carnitine consumption, gut bacteria metabolize the carnitine to a toxic substance called trimethylamine, which then gets oxidized in our liver to trimethylamine-n-oxide (TMAO), which then circulates throughout our bloodstream. TMAO is involved in the buildup of cholesterol in the inflammatory cells in the atherosclerotic plaques in our arteries, increasing our risk of heart attack, stroke, and death. Choline consumption is associated not just with getting cancer and spreading cancer, but also with a significantly increased risk of dying from it. In one study, men who ate the most choline had a 70% increased risk of lethal prostate cancer. Choline is so concentrated in cancer cells that if you follow choline uptake, you can actually track the spread of cancer throughout the body.
  2. Methionine– While methionine is an essential amino acid, and therefore necessary, in foods of animal origin the ratio of methionine to other amino acids is significantly higher when compared to plant foods. Methionine is one of many food nutrients this has been found to speed up cancer growth; so much so that methionine restriction has been proposed as a method for treating cancer.
  3. Exogenous endotoxins are found in all animal products. These bacterial end-products are heat resistant and cause an inflammatory reaction in our bodies that lasts up to six hours.
  4. IGF-1– The ratio of amino acids in meat causes our bodies to up-regulate the production of insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), a natural human growth hormone instrumental in normal growth during childhood. However, in adulthood, IGF-1 can promote abnormal growth—the proliferation, spread (metastasis), and invasion of cancer.
  5. Heavy Metals, Environmental Pollutants, Drug Residues, and Chemicals in Animal Feed – Animal foods are higher on the food chain than plants, so they contain more environmental toxins. As well, many of these pollutants are fat-soluble, so they find their way into the fat cells of animals and remain there until we eat them. And some of these chemicals are found within the feed of farm animals and farmed fish. Environmental toxins have been shown to cause a host of diseases, including cancer. Some examples of these pollutants include Cadmium, Mercury, PCB, Dioxins, More on Dioxins, Endocrine Disrupters, Perfluorochemicals, Flame Retardant Chemicals including Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) & polychlorinated naphthalenes (PCN), Arsenic, Antibiotics, Pharmaceutical Drug Residues
  6. Persistent Organic Pollutants– Unless you work in a chemical factory, or stumble across some toxic waste, more than 90% of the persistent organic pollutants found in your body come from animal foods. This figure is not about one specific type of animal food, but refers to the result of consumption ALL animal foods, including poultry and seafood.
  7. Heterocyclic Amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) are chemicals formed when the flesh of animals is cooked by high temperature methods such as pan frying or barbequing. These cooked meat carcinogens are also associated with an increased risk of kidney cancer, colon cancer, lung cancer, and pancreatic cancer. More than 20 heterocyclic amines have been reported in cooked meats, fish, and poultry prepared under common house-hold cooking conditions.
  8. The Dangers of Eating Within the Animal Kingdom- By eating fellow animals, we are exposed not only to contractible animal diseases, but we are also ingesting animal tissues that our body may mistake as our own (the hallmark of autoimmune diseases). Eating outside of our kingdom (the animal kingdom) may not only help to protect us from a host of autoimmune diseases, but also from many other diseases that can be transmitted from animal to animal (yes we are animals). Conversely, diseases that affect plants rarely affect humans. Eating outside of the animal kingdom (plant-based foods) dramatically reduces the chances of acquiring foodborne illness such as salmonella, Clostridium difficile, and Campylobacter, the most common bacterial chicken pathogen.

 

Conclusion

If nothing else, hopefully you now understand that whether or not you call poultry or seafood “meat”, these foods are clearly animal flesh, and they not only share many of the health risks associated with other meats, but also have unique risks of their own. These are clearly not healthy substitutes for red meat. So the obvious question now is, “what foods make up a healthy diet?” Well, one dietary recommendation that virtually all dietitians and nutritionists agree on is that we all need to be eating more unprocessed fruits and vegetables, and other foods of plant origin in our diet. Whole, unprocessed plant-based foods are the foundation of a diet that is truly health-promoting. This nutritional recommendation is not even remotely controversial.

Below is MyPlate, which is a recent food guideline put out by the USDA. You will note that the section devoted to ‘protein’ is intentionally not labelled as ‘meat’ (or any animal-based protein). Hopefully this article gives you a scientific insight into why this nutritional recommendation has finally come to be. Furthermore, it is very easy for people to get adequate protein intake from plant sources. In fact, vegetarians and vegans typically get 70% more protein than the required daily intake. If you are concerned about protein in your diet, then foods such as legumes (beans, peas and lentils), soy (edamame, soybeans, and tofu), wild rice, chickpeas, and greens are packed with protein. When you examine their nutritional profiles, you will see that most plant-based foods contain protein.

Does your plate look like this?

[i] The China Study.  T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D. and Thomas M. Campbell II, M.D. BenBella Books, Dallas TX, January 2005. pg. 77-81

[ii] All meat values are for uncooked meat since cooking can increase or decrease the fat content depending upon preparation method.   All values are drawn from USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, and a standard energy conversion of 9 calories per gram of fat was used to obtain calories from fat. http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome

 

*Legal Disclaimer – This website does not offer medical advice. Always consult your primary health care provider before making changes to your diet. Content is provided for informational purposes only. As a massage therapist, I cannot, and do not personally advise in the area of nutrition. I always defer to the evidence, and to experts in the field. An excellent site for evidence-based advice is Dr. Greger’s non-profit site, www.nutritionfacts.org

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About The Author
Brian Fulton Brian Fulton is a Registered Massage Therapist that has been practicing in St. Catharines, Ontario since 1999. He is also an author and an educator. He conducts workplace health and wellness seminars, and was the health columnist for Dalhousie Peer magazine for over ten years. His book, The Placebo Effect in Manual Therapy- Improving Clinical Outcomes, printed by Handspring Publications, is available through Amazon.

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