Gone Fishing Again

Obesity and weight-loss are incredibly popular and often reoccurring topics in health news, but another one that comes up a lot is fish. Is it good for us? How much should we eat? What about mercury contamination? The list goes on and on. There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding fish, but one thing is for sure, the mass media message to consumers is mixed.

A recent article in The Los Angeles Times points out that even the Environmental Protection Agency acknowledges the confusion over fish consumption. Here’s an excerpt from reporter Marla Cone’s article:
The scientists, assigned the task of balancing the benefits of seafood with the dangers posed by contaminants, echoed the 2004 guidelines of the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. But they said the message to American consumers had been fragmented and confusing, and they advised the agencies to develop new tools for informing the public.
So, you’re probably asking, “What’s been done about it?” To answer that I’ll reference the title of Cone’s report, Scientists Say Seafood's Benefits Outweigh Risks. You can’t say it any clearer. According to scientists Americans do not eat enough fish. And since fish is high in protein, low in saturated fats, and contains omega-3 fatty acids, we should overlook its contamination issues and gobble up suggested “safe” amounts. What are they you ask?

According to Cone’s report adults, children, and people at risk of heart disease should eat two three-ounce servings a week. Children under the age of thirteen and women who are or may become pregnant, or who are nursing, should eat the two weekly servings, but should avoid larger predatory fish. How’s that sit with you? Let’s see what Dr. Fuhrman has to say about all this.

Dr. Fuhrman recognizes the confusion fish consumption can create. In a previous post entitled Fish: Pollution Risks, he expounds:
Fish and shellfish contain high concentrations of protein and other essential nutrients, are low in saturated fat, and contain the valuable omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA. These food factors are thought to contribute to heart health and to children’s proper growth and development (there is overwhelming evidence confirming the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids), which is why fish and shellfish are considered to be an important part of a well-balanced diet. Unfortunately, in addition to EPA and DHA, nearly all fish and shellfish contain mercury and other pollutants. Since these toxins in fish have potential health risks, wouldn’t it make sense to look for a cleaner, safer source for our omega-3 fats?
Okay, so what about the idea of acceptable levels of mercury and consuming so-called safe amounts of fish? More from Dr. Fuhrman’s post:
EPA makes recommendations for what it considers an acceptable level of mercury in a pregnant woman’s body. As the recognition that mercury damages the brains of our children has increased in the last two decades, EPA has had to lower the “acceptable” level more than once…

… No fish is completely free of mercury and other pollutants. If you eat fish regularly, your body is undoubtedly high in mercury. You cannot remove the mercury from the fish by trimming the fat or by cooking because it is deposited throughout the fish’s tissues. I’ve observed that a person’s mercury level correlates exceptionally well with the amount of fish consumed, and medical studies back up this observation. Individuals eating fish a few times a week have been found to have blood mercury levels exceeding the maximum level recommended by the National Academy of Sciences, which is a blood level of below 5 micrograms. Women eating seafood more than twice per week have been found to have 7 times the blood mercury levels compared with women who rarely eat fish, and children eating fish regularly were found to have mercury levels 40 times higher than the national mean.1,2
By now you’re probably wondering what Dr. Fuhrman’s recommendations for eating fish are. In Fishing for the Truth he gives his bottom line:
Choose fish over other animal products, but be aware that the place where it was caught, and the type of fish, matters. Don't accept recreational fish from questionable waters. Farmed fish is safer. Never eat high-mercury-content fish. Don't eat fish more than twice a week, and if you have a family history of hemorrhagic stroke, limit it further to only once a month.
And in case you’re interested, in Ten Super Foods to Use in Your Recipes and Menus Dr. Fuhrman provides an alternate source of omega-3 fatty acids, flaxseeds:
Flax Seeds are rich in lignans and omega-3 fatty acids, and scientific studies have confirmed that flax seeds have a positive influence on everything from cholesterol levels and constipation to cancer and heart disease. Use ground flax seed in oatmeal, or add them to whipped frozen bananas, stewed apples, and cinnamon and nut balls. Keep in mind that the scientifically documented benefits from flax seeds come from raw, ground flax seed, not flax seed oil.

1. Hightower JM, Moore D. Mercury levels in highend consumers of fish. Environmental Health Perspectives 2003;111(4):604-608.

2. Mahaffey KR, Clickner RP, Bodurow CC. Blood organic mercury and dietary mercury intake. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 1999 and 2000. Environmental Health
Perspectives 112(5):562-570.

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Comments (5) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Leanne - October 21, 2006 1:46 AM

Our seas are so overfished, and sea life populations are so devastated, I am wondering when the good Doctor Furhman will take it on board to recommend completely against fish consumption, not just for the contamination risks outweighing the benefits, but for the health and safety of our whole planet.

At what point do we realise and recognise that our responsibility as sentient beings on this planet outweighs our desire to consume a particular food source?

Regardless of contamination issues, the responsible thing to feed both ourselves and our children, with the current state of our oceans and many fish species in peril of extinction, is to simply refuse to eat fish, and refuse to be part of the problem.

Heidi - October 21, 2006 9:07 AM

In response to Leanne, I agree with you that our diets (and personally, lifestyle) are best lived with acknolewledgment of the whole earth and its inhabitants, as I believe all things are connected. What I would like to point out, however, that one aspect of Dr. Fuhrman that I particularly treasure is that he prefers to report on nutrition without social/political agenda: he wants to know, strictly from a nutritional standpoint what is optimal for us. I appreciate this. Having read info from so many sources, I often wonder and waver...is there a hidden agenda in this? Is the "lens" clouded? His attempt at truth, in the real sense of the word, is refreshing.

Jackie Danicki - October 22, 2006 12:32 PM

The problem with overfishing comes down to property rights: When nobody actually owns the fish, they're going to get plundered. (You'll notice that we never worry about, say, cows or chickens becoming extinct. Ownership protects.) Additionally, the European Union (like the US and Canada) has fishing quotas whereby they actually PAY people to keep fishing at a certain level - whether there is market demand or not, whether the fish will be eaten or not. That's because governments are more interested in keeping the fishing industry afloat. It's got precious little to do with what we choose to eat - those subsidies will still go to the fisheries and fisherman to keep fishing.

Organisations like Greenpeace should be allowed to buy fish stocks and then decide only to allow a certain amount to be fished; the same opportunity should be extended to private companies. The root of this problem - as with so many 'public space' headaches - is that private property rights have not been introduced into the equation.

John Gilpin - October 22, 2006 4:55 PM

Not all fisheries are in bad shape (although most are). Specifically, the wild Alaska salmon fishery is very well managed (and wild Alaska salmon is notably low in mercury). Contrary to Dr. Fuhrman's generalization, farmed *salmon* is not a superior choice. Farmed salmon is both environmentally destructive *and* highly contaminated.

Kim - October 24, 2006 9:53 PM

I was surprised to hear that Dr. Fuhrman feels that farmed fish are safer.

It's so different than what we hear about beef and chicken - free range, organic is best. I can see where it might be a different situation in fish.

Sure takes the fun out of a tuna-sandwich, though! : )

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