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Apr 16, 2012

The Truth about Fish

Not only does eating fish reduce risk for heart disease, it may boast a wealth of other health benefits.

With the many conflicting messages around risks and benefits of fish, it’s hard to know just what the truth is. Should we be eating fish for all of its heart-healthy benefits, or avoiding it for fear of ingesting environmental contaminants that could harm our health? And according to an article published April 2nd in The Washington Post, the simple answer is - “eat fish”.

Why? First, the healthful omega-3, polyunsaturated fats found in fish have well-established cardiovascular benefits. Research has shown that the risk of dying from heart disease is about 50 percent higher among people who don’t eat fish than among those who get one or two servings of high-fat fish each week. And with heart disease being the leading killer of both men and women in the United States, reducing risk for cardiovascular disease – like by eating fish – is of utmost importance. And not only does eating fish reduce risk for heart disease, it may boast a wealth of other health benefits, like reducing risk for stroke and improving mood.

On the other hand, fish may carry certain risks as well. Certain contaminants that accumulate in fish tissue - most notably mercury and the man-made chemical, polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) - become more concentrated as you move up the food chain. So bigger fish, such as swordfish and tilefish, contain more contaminants than the smaller, contaminated fish that they eat. That’s why certain organizations, like the Environmental Defense Fund advises that all adults, including pregnant women, should limit fish, such as wild salmon and farmed salmon, to 1-2 servings each month.

The problem is that organizations advising adults to limit fish consumption only consider the possible harm of eating fish, regardless of its significant health benefits. Instead, when taking into account both the risks and benefits associated with fish consumption, organizations such as the Institute of Medicine and Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations working with the World Health Organization, all agreed that the benefits far outweigh the risks. So as long as you’re not pregnant, you should eat fish regularly – especially smaller fish that are lower on the food chain with fewer contaminants. And for women who are pregnant, they should follow guidelines issued in 2004 by the Food and Agriculture Organization and Environmental Protection Agency – eat up to 12 ounces of fish per week, focusing on low-mercury fish and avoiding the four highest-mercury fish, which include swordfish, shark, tilefish and king mackerel.  

Questions for You to Consider

  • What are the health risks associated with environmental contaminants, such as mercury and PCBs?

  • The two biggest health concerns associated with consumption of these contaminants include cancer and fetal neurodevelopment. Exceeding safe thresholds for mercury consumption (0.1 micrograms per kilogram of body weight per day) during pregnancy may adversely affect fetal neurodevelopment, and ingesting PCBs may increase risk for cancer. However, the risks associated with such contaminants remains unclear and may be overstated.
  • Which types of fish have the lowest mercury levels?

  • In general, the types of fish with the least mercury include haddock, pollock, salmon, tilapia, and freshwater trout, among others.