Who knew there could be health risks from eating fish? Fish is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids and protein. It is low in fat. Fish is important for heart health and normal growth and development in children. It is recommended that everyone eat at least two servings of fish per week. However, this recommendation could lead to health risks from eating fish for certain people.
How Can There Be Health Risks from Eating Fish?
The health risks from eating fish are from mercury levels in fish. Nearly all fish contain mercury. Mercury can build up in your body and lead to mercury poisoning in large doses.
How Can Fish Contain Mercury?
Although mercury is a naturally occurring element, mercury levels in fish are caused by pollution. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency1, the mercury from pollution settles in the water. It is then turned into methylmercury which is absorbed into the fish as they eat. Mercury levels in fish are determined by what the fish eat.
How Can I Determine Mercury Levels in Fish?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)2 has a chart showing mercury levels in fish. Table 1 lists fish with the highest levels of mercury2. Table 2 shows the lowest mercury levels in fish2. These levels are shown in parts per million. It would make sense to choose those fish containing the lowest levels of mercury to reduce health risks from eating fish.
For example, shark and swordfish contain some of the highest mercury levels in fish2. Haddock, pollock and tilapia have lower mercury levels2.
Who Has the Greatest Chance of Developing Health Risks from Eating Fish Due to Mercury Levels?
Those with the greatest chance of developing health risks from eating fish are pregnant women, nursing women and small children1. Also, if you are a woman who plans on becoming pregnant, you should be concerned about mercury levels in fish. High levels of mercury can affect the growing fetus, infants and young children.
What Should I Do to Reduce Health Risks from Eating Fish?
For most adults, the health benefits far outweigh the health risks from eating fish. Mercury levels in fish usually do not affect healthy adults when fish is consumed in recommended amounts. But if you are concerned about mercury levels in fish, check the FDA charts2 to choose fish with lower mercury levels.
If you are one of the individuals listed for higher health risks from eating fish as above, be aware of mercury levels in fish. Try to avoid those with the highest mercury levels. Use the FDA charts2 and avoid the fish listed in Table 1. Choose mostly from Table 22 for lowest mercury levels in fish. Table 3 lists fish with mid-level mercury levels, but if consumed in larger amounts these can cause health risks from eating fish.
Canned tuna is considered mid-level in mercury levels, so limit how much of this economical food you eat. The Natural Resources Defense Council3has some guidelines for eating canned tuna to prevent health risks from eating fish:
Pregnant women (or those likely to become pregnant): No more than 2 cans of chunk light tuna or 2/3 of one can albacore tuna per week to prevent health risks from eating fish.
Children under age 6: one ounce per week of chunk light tuna per 12 pounds of body weight.
Individuals with higher health risks from eating fish can find more tips in the National Resources Defense Council’s article titled “Mercury Contamination in Fish: A Guide to Staying Healthy and Fighting Back”3.
The resources used here all agree you should not cut fish out of your diet completely. Fish should be a part of a healthy diet for everyone. As mentioned earlier, the benefits far outweigh the health risks from eating fish. Just be an informed consumer when it comes to mercury levels in fish.
1) U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Fish Advisories: What You Need to Know about Mercury in Fish and Shellfish; www.epa.gov
2) U.S. Food and Drug Administration; Mercury Levels in Commercial Fish and Shellfish; www.fda.gov
3) Natural Resources Defense Council; Mercury Contamination in Fish: A Guide to Staying Healthy and Fighting Back; www.nrdc.org