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Dietary shift to forage fish could prevent millions of deaths

Substituting red meat with forage fish like herring, sardines, and anchovies could prevent up to 750,000 deaths annually by 2050 and markedly decrease disability from diet-related diseases, according to a recent study led by the National Institute for Environmental Studies in Japan. 

This dietary shift could particularly benefit low and middle-income countries, where heart disease rates are high and such fish are both affordable and abundant.

Consumption of red meat 

The consumption of red and processed meats has been increasingly linked to a higher risk of non-communicable diseases, which were responsible for approximately 70% of global deaths in 2019. 

Health issues such as coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and bowel cancer constituted nearly half of these deaths, with coronary artery disease being the most prevalent.

Health benefits of forage fish

Marine forage fish, consumed by larger fish species, are noted for their high levels of omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA), which may help prevent coronary heart disease. They are also rich in calcium and vitamin B12 and boast the smallest carbon footprint among all animal food sources.

However, the researchers highlight a concerning issue: about three-quarters of forage fish catch, much of it from regions grappling with food insecurity, is processed into fish meal and fish oil for aquaculture, catering primarily to affluent consumers.

To assess how forage fish could impact global disease burden if used as a red meat alternative, the researchers devised four different global distribution scenarios based on projected red meat consumption in 2050 across 137 countries and historical data on catches.

Forage fish in human diets

The findings indicate significant potential public health benefits from incorporating forage fish directly into human diets, particularly in lowering coronary heart disease occurrences. 

This approach could prevent between half a million to 750,000 deaths from diet-related diseases in 2050 and reduce years lived with disability by 8–15 million, with the most significant impact in low and middle-income countries.

Reducing the global disease burden 

Although the supply of these fish may not be enough to replace all red meat consumption, their optimal utilization could nearly meet the recommended fish intake of 40 kcal per capita daily in most countries, potentially reducing deaths from major diseases by 2% in 2050.

The analysis pointed out that prioritizing domestic supply of forage fish for direct consumption or as a meat substitute could have the least impact on death prevention. 

Allocating forage fish to areas with minimal seafood intake, predominantly in lower and middle-income countries, could more effectively lessen the global disease burden.

Cultural barriers 

“Despite the theoretical potential of forage fish, several barriers, such as fish meal and oil processing, overfishing, climate change, and cultural acceptance may prevent the health benefits of forage fish from being realized,” the authors wrote. 

“Multi-sectoral policy coordination and action (eg: prioritizing access to affordable fish, such as forage fish, for the poor and promoting the use of nutrient-rich microalgae as fish feed) could help to address some of these barriers.”

Implementing culturally appropriate interventions to encourage diet and lifestyle changes, alongside strategies like climate change impact labels and educating consumers on the nutritional benefits of forage fish, could further facilitate the shift from red meat to forage fish, contributing to global health improvements.

More about forage fish

Forage fish are small, schooling fish that play a crucial role in marine ecosystems. They are a key food source for larger predatory fish, marine mammals, and birds. 

These fish are characterized by their large populations and high reproductive rates, which help sustain their numbers despite heavy predation. They are found in oceans worldwide and tend to inhabit the water column’s upper layers, though some species may migrate to deeper waters. 

Forage fish are also significant for human economies, supporting commercial fishing industries and being used in fishmeal, oil production, and as bait.

Their importance to marine food webs cannot be overstated. The decline in forage fish populations due to overfishing, habitat destruction, and climate change can have cascading effects, impacting predators’ survival and altering marine biodiversity. 

The study is published in the journal BMJ Global Health.


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