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FDA: Eat more nutritious fish, but avoid species that contain mercury

Some other fish species not recommended because of mercury content
Some other fish species not recommended because of mercury content
Photo by Neilson Barnard

Eating fish is healthy, because it contains high-quality protein, many vitamins and minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids. It’s important that pregnant women eat fish because of its nutritional value, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Eating fish while pregnant is especially important, because its nutrients help in the growth and development of the fetus – especially the brain. Eating fish also is healthy in early infancy for breastfed infants, and in childhood.

But many pregnant women and parents have avoided eating fish or giving it to their children for fear of getting mercury poisoning, because some species of fish in the United States’ waters contain the harmful chemical.

“For years many women have limited or avoided eating fish during pregnancy or feeding fish to their young children,” says Stephen Ostroff, MD, the FDA’s acting chief scientist. “But emerging science now tells us that limiting or avoiding fish during pregnancy and early childhood can mean missing out on important nutrients that can have a positive impact on growth and development as well as on general health.”

Because of this, the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency have released an advisory for fish consumption for pregnant women, as well as breastfeeding mothers and young children. They recommend these groups eat more fish – but to be careful in their choices and not consume fish that are high in the chemical mercury.

Mercury occurs naturally in the environment and can also be released to the environment through many types of human activity, such as air pollution. Mercury can collect in streams, lakes, and oceans and is turned into methylmercury in the water. It is this type of mercury that is present in fish. Methylmercury is a neurotoxin that can be harmful to the brain and nervous system if a person is consumes too much of it.

Almost all fish contain at least traces of methylmercury. As they feed, fish absorb it, and it tends to build up more in some types of fish than others, especially in larger fish with longer life spans, such as sharks and swordfish.

The FDA and EPA are issuing new recommendations because many pregnant women in the United States are not consuming fish in amounts recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010. Those guidelines now recommend that women who are pregnant or breastfeeding eat at least eight and up to 12 ounces of a variety of seafood per week, “from choices that are lower in mercury.”

“This advice is being issued now to encourage women who are pregnant (or may become pregnant) or breastfeeding and young children to eat more fish and to eat a variety of fish from choices that are lower in mercury,” according to the new guidelines.

Here are the agency's recommendations:

The FDA advises that adults eat eight to 12 ounces of a variety of fish – or two to three servings per week -- from choices that are lower in mercury. Young children should have two to three servings per week, but in portions that are appropriate for their age and calorie needs.

Fish that is lower in mercury, which includes the most commonly eaten fish, are as follows:

• Shrimp;
• Salmon;
• Pollock;
• Tuna (light canned);
• Tilapia;
• Catfish;
• Cod.

Avoid these four types of fish, which are highest in mercury:

• Tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico;
• Shark;
• Swordfish;
• King mackerel.

Additionally, limit white (albacore) tuna to six ounces a week.

Specific fish with the highest omega-3 fatty acid content that are low in mercury include:

• Atlantic, Chinook, and Coho salmon;
• Anchovies, herring, and shad;
• Atlantic and Pacific sardines;
• Pacific oysters.

When eating fish that is caught from streams, rivers, and lakes, pay attention to fish advisories on mercury levels in those bodies of water. If advice isn’t available, adults should limit fish caught themselves to six ounces a week and young children to one to three ounces a week and not eat other fish that week.

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