Content in Fish
Do the Benefits of Eating
Fish Outweigh the Risks of Mercury Consumption?
Eating Fish and the Mercury Risk
it is believed that eating fish will help make your
wishes come true. In Celtic mythology, eating fish
bestows a person with infinite knowledge. Indeed,
in cultures and religions the world over, fish have
been an enduring symbol of prosperity and divinity.
of course the merits of fish aren’t just metaphysical.
Fish are a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids — good,
unsaturated fats, which promote physical and mental
wellbeing. Since 1996, the American Heart Association
has advised eating fish regularly to improve cardiovascular
health. The low-calorie, high-protein food improves
heart health by lowering triglycerides and stemming
arteriosclerosis. In the past decade, research has
linked fish consumption to decreased risk of strokes,
diabetes, diseases of the eye and some cancers as
well. Eating fish can also reduce rates of Alzheimer’s
disease and boost intelligence — a 2005 Harvard
study showed that women who ate fish every week had
children with higher intelligence scores than children
of women who did not do so.
the advantages of regular fish consumption are clear,
new evidence about the dangers of mercury has made
the waters murkier. Mercury is a heavy metal found
in both fresh and salt water that in high doses acts
as a neurotoxin. While all fish contain traces of
mercury, the mercury content in certain large, predatory
fish — including tilefish, shark, swordfish and
king mackerel — is high enough to warrant concern.
The average person who eats more than one serving
of these fish in a week will be exceeding the World
Health Organization’s upper limit for weekly
mercury consumption. Tuna, a popular choice for many
fish eaters, has also come under scrutiny by the FDA.
Vulnerable individuals, including pregnant women and
children, are advised to limit intake of canned albacore
tuna as well as tuna steaks to six ounces or one can
per week. Fresh tuna, which is commonly used in sushi, was originally excluded from the FDA's advisory. But a recent study by The New York Times revealed tuna sushi to contain levels of mercury equal or greater to those in cooked tuna — levels high enough to permit the FDA to take legal action to remove the fish from the market.
of mercury poisoning include motor impairments, muscle
weakness, numbness in the extremities and memory loss.
Though in many cases symptoms fade after mercury blood
levels fall, exposure to excessive levels can permanently
damage or fatally injure the brain and kidneys. Unsafe
levels of mercury can also interrupt neurological
development in fetuses, infants and children. Yet
even when eating high-mercury fish doesn’t result
in mercury poisoning per se, the health costs are
still considerable. Studies suggest that mercury consumption
may actually cancel out the cardiovascular benefits
of omega-3s. One study done in Finland showed that
men who consumed high-mercury fish had double the
rates of heart attacks and strokes than men who did
not eat such fish.
how can one glean the benefits of fish but stave off
the detriments of mercury? Partake in moderation and
know your fish. The American Heart Association now
advises eating two servings of low-mercury fish per
week. Wild-caught salmon is very low in mercury — and
low in PCBs that can contaminate farmed salmon — as
is freshwater trout. Tilapia, herring, sardines, catfish
and flounder (sole) are also good, low-mercury choices.
Chunk light tuna is a better selection than albacore,
with a third of the mercury on average. A general
guideline is to choose fish with mercury levels well
below the FDA recommendation of one part per million.
Though eating fish may not give you infinite knowledge
or make all your wishes come true, consuming it sensibly
will set you on the path to a healthier, longer life.
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(Updated: 09/16/13 RD)