Can a Fish-Focused Diet Save Our Oceans?
Bestselling author and James Beard Award winner Paul Greenberg has been changing the way people think about our relationship with fish and the environment since his first book, Four Fish, came out in 2010. His third seafood book, The Omega Principle: Seafood and the Quest for a Long Life and a Healthier Planet, dives deep into the environmental damage wrought by the global surge in omega-3 supplements and nets some intriguing solutions. Debbie Koenig spoke with Greenberg for the August 2018 issue of Cooking Light.
Debbie Koenig: The book seems to be inspired by your own sense of mortality and what you call the sea’s own midlife crisis. How did those ideas come together?
Paul Greenberg: Pretty much everything that omega-3s are supposed to help with is linked with some sort of decline associated with getting older, like heart disease or macular degeneration.
I was 45 or 46 when I started this book; now I’m 50. The entire life span of the earth is probably going to be 9 billion years, and we’re at 4 billion and change. There are systemic things going on with the ocean that seem to show it is past its prime and declining. That was just an immediate parallel. The question I put to myself was, was there anything that we could address in this midlife moment of the ocean?
And what did you find?
We don’t think of the ocean as a wild food system but more as an extractive system from which we gather fish, minerals, and oil while also treating it as a dumping ground. The ocean, for the last couple hundred years, has saved us from much more extreme climate change. It’s been buffering the atmosphere by absorbing huge amounts of carbon.
We need to reorient ourselves toward what I call an omega-3 world, a world that is conducive to an abundance of seafood and to sustainable energy. If you were, for example, to pair aquaculture with the development of offshore wind, wind power could replace energy from fossil fuels while the superstructure of the wind farms would provide anchoring structures for the aquaculture. You could end up with more omega-3-rich food and lower the carbon input that’s overloading the ocean.
You trace a lot of environmental problems in the book to innovations born from good intentions. Could the new innovations you talk about eventually cause some other damage?
Probably the most controversial aspect of the book is this idea of developing offshore aquaculture. It has potential, but many people will be saying, “Aquaculture offshore is going to become like the Iowa pig farms of the sea,” and there is something to that.
A poorly regulated major initiative can have consequences anywhere you do it, and in our current political situation where regulation is being de-emphasized, I worry that what I’m proposing might be taken without the necessary precaution.
How have your own lifestyle practices changed in the wake of the book?
While writing the book I went on this all-fish diet where I ate fish for nearly every meal for a year and measured my health results before and after. There wasn’t any particularly large change to my blood pressure or cholesterol, but I did have much higher mercury levels.
I looked at it scientifically: How much do I have to lower my fish consumption to get the mercury in hand, but also get the health benefits? I concluded that the ideal diet would be something that I call the “pesca-terranean” diet. A pescaterranean diet follows a Mediterranean eating pattern, but the two weekly portions of animal protein that the Mediterranean diet suggests are fish-based.
I’m guessing you don’t take a supplement yourself.
I do not.
What about people who prefer to take a pill?
Take supplements that are not derived from reduction— in other words, boiling down whole wild fish. Right now, 25% of the world fish catch is turned into oil and fishmeal.
But emergent technology allows companies to reclaim the guts and heads and so forth after fish is processed to eat, and to turn those parts into supplements. You could take one of those or one made from algae. And there’s always good old-fashioned cod liver oil—cod livers are basically a byproduct.
What if you want to get your omega-3s from sustainable food sources?
A no-brainer is to cook with anchovies. If you don’t like fish, pasture-raised eggs are a good source. Even switching from grain-fed to grass-fed animals gives you a little bump.
How do you define healthy?
The Mediterranean ideal is what I strive for: lean body mass; fairly low amount of carbohydrates and animal protein; fish-based, mostly. I also believe in the Mediterranean ideal of socializing and friendship and family, and incorporating that as part of meals. In my house, nobody is allowed to watch television and eat food at the same time. I think savoring your food and enjoying that moment is as important as the food itself.
Try this Two-Can Sauce recipe from Greenberg:
Drain the oil from a can of anchovies into a saucepan; mince anchovies. Add minced anchovies, minced garlic, and a 28-oz. can of crushed tomatoes to the pan. Simmer over low 30 minutes.