Fishy Nutritional Advice: The Benefits and Risks of Shellfish

By: 
True You
August 13, 2021

With the advent of modern transportation and refrigeration, no matter how far you are from the coasts these days, you can find seafood on the menu. This has opened up the possibility of a shellfish-rich diet to many people—with all the dangers and benefits that can bring.

Whether you think of shellfish as dangerous or delicious, chances are you are right. Seafood contains some of the healthiest sources of protein you can eat, but there can be a downside to eating these nutritious creatures. Bacteria, heavy metal contaminants like mercury, and food allergies all present potential dangers for those looking to indulge in a dinner featuring crustaceans. 

What are the Types of Shellfish?

Shellfish is something of a confusing name, as many of the animals included in this category don’t actually have shells. The two main categories of shellfish are crustaceans and mollusks. The first, such as crab and lobsters, all grow some form of hard external shell. Some mollusks, on the other hand, such as octopus and squid, are notable for being squishy both inside and out. 

Most shellfish we eat are from the oceans, but there are some freshwater varieties that sneak their way onto our plates from time to time. Clams and mussels come in both varieties, and saltwater lobsters have a freshwater cousin in crayfish. Some of the most well-known varieties of shellfish include:

  • shrimp
  • crab
  • crayfish
  • barnacles
  • lobster
  • prawns
  • octopus
  • abalone
  • cuttlefish
  • clams
  • snails
  • mussels
  • oysters
  • squid
  • scallops

Is Shellfish Healthy to Eat?

Shellfish have long been a part of some of the healthiest diets on earth. From the Mediterranean to places like Okinawa, coastal diets that include a mix of seafood and fresh vegetables are widely regarded as the healthiest ways to eat. 

Omega 3 fatty acids are important for various components of human health including brain function and the effectiveness of your immune system. Many kinds of seafood are rich in these fatty acids, including both DHA and EPA, but eating shellfish alone is not the best way to get your fill of these nutritious compounds. Balancing out servings of shellfish with oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, or even sardines is the optimal way to ensure you are getting the quality and variety of nutrients you need from the seafood you eat. 

One of the challenges for many people is getting the protein they need in their diets while keeping calories and saturated fats found in red meat low. Shellfish are packed with a wide range of micronutrients and essential amino acids making them the ideal nutrient dense foods that are needed to round out a healthy diet. The following are some of the most important nutrients found in shellfish:

  • vitamin E
  • niacin
  • phosphorus
  • selenium
  • vitamin B6
  • magnesium
  • copper
  • potassium
  • vitamin B12
  • riboflavin
  • zinc
  • iron
  • iodine

The health benefits of shellfish are evident in some of the major areas that many Americans struggle with, especially as they age. By providing protein without adding significantly to dietary cholesterol, a diet rich in shellfish can help lower your risk of heart disease, lower cholesterol levels, and reap the benefits of antioxidants such as vitamin D and vitamin A. 

Food safety is a concern with any form of animal protein, and shellfish are certainly no exception to this rule. Since much seafood—shellfish included—is eaten raw, the concerns about contamination or possible bacterial growth is heightened over other proteins like chicken that are nearly always cooked before being eaten. 

Why Shellfish is Bad for You (Sometimes)

If there is a universally beneficial food, shellfish certainly isn’t it. For some people, shellfish can represent a serious danger. Pregnant women, for example, should avoid certain types of seafood including shellfish. For others, a shellfish allergy can mean a life-long avoidance of certain kinds of seafood is in order. 

Seafood safety can seem like tricky business, and it can be difficult to keep track of which kinds of raw shellfish are safe and which aren’t. With any raw food, there is the possibility of food poisoning, but eating shellfish that have been properly harvested and processed can lower your risks of finding yourself feeling poorly after a delicious dinner. 

Aside from specific conditions such as the presence of allergies or a pregnancy, the possibility of contaminants in shellfish is still a concern. Crustaceans are often bottom-feeders, which means they are prone to absorbing heavy metals and other contaminants in their environment that are then passed on to us when we eat them. 

The problem of contaminants in fish is serious enough that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued recommendations about the amounts of seafood that have lower and higher levels of mercury and other heavy metals to eat. 

As contaminants in seafood become more recognized, efforts are increasing in limiting the potential problems of contamination through aquaculture, especially in bivalves like oysters, mussels, and scallops. By raising these shellfish in more controlled environments, there is greater potential to ensure proper handling from the ocean to your table, ideally lowering possible health risks.

Shellfish and Weight Loss

Low-calorie, high-protein diets are almost always part of the answer for people looking to lose weight. Trimming down often means cutting out the excess calories and fats found in beef or pork, but if you are trying to increase your physical activity it is important to keep your intake of protein high. 

Shellfish and fatty fish are both excellent sources of protein, and they are also attractive to nutritionists and dietitians thanks to their ability to add important omega-3 fatty acids to the mix. Finding low-calorie macronutrients like protein and micronutrients such as selenium or phosphorus in the same food can help you get the most bang for the buck from a nutritional perspective. 

As good for you as shellfish can be, the phrase “all things in moderation” still applies to tasty crustaceans. The potential risks from heavy metal poisoning and other contaminants in seafood is very real, and even without those risks, the healthiest diet for you is going to be one that has a high percentage of your overall food intake coming from fruits, vegetables, and healthy whole grains. 

One group of people who need to pay particular attention to their intake of shellfish are people who have undergone weight loss surgery such as a gastric bypass. The severe caloric restrictions demanded by bariatric surgery can make low-calorie, high-protein foods like shellfish attractive, but some options such as oysters, clams, and mussels may not be appropriate in the immediate postoperative period while you are getting used to your new diet. 

Dietary planning for any weight loss procedure is crucial for success, and even survival. Malnutrition is a very real concern for people who have undergone gastric bypass surgery, which is one reason an increasing number of people are considering alternative weight loss procedures such as endoscopic sleeve gastroplasty (ESG). Some reversible procedures are also gaining popularity as people look for ways to cut the calories without incurring some of the risks of traditional bariatric surgery. 

If you are considering a weight loss procedure, or have already undergone gastric bypass surgery without achieving the lasting results you were hoping for, request a consultation with True You Weight Loss today. We can help you navigate the complex landscape of options, benefits, and potential challenges of the many ways to lose weight.

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