By Susan Boekel, RD, LD, IBCLC | Outpatient/Wellness Dietitian
I had a friend recently ask me about buying and preparing fish. She knows eating fish twice a week is an important recommendation to lower her risk of heart disease as well as other conditions but she has concerns about the potential risks. My friend is not alone. Many of us often wonder if we should forgo fish because of the contaminants they might carry.
There are risks to eating seafood and these risks have gotten a lot of press. There are a number of pollutants that make their way into the foods we eat, not just fish. Those of most concern are mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s), dioxins, and pesticide residues. Avoiding fish is certainly one way to avoid mercury or PCB’s, but is that the wisest choice, given the benefits of eating fish?
To help you strike a balance when determining benefit over risk, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health reviewed data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other sources. They calculated if 100,000 people ate farmed salmon twice a week for 70 years, the extra PCB intake could potentially cause 24 extra deaths from cancer – but would prevent at least 7,000 deaths from heart disease.
The easiest way to avoid concerns about contaminants is to eat a variety of fish and other seafood. There is one exception: if you eat local freshwater fish caught by friends or family, you should consult local advisories about the amounts of such fish you should eat.
There are more specific recommendations for women who are or may become pregnant, nursing mothers, and young children. The recommendation is to limit Albacore tuna to once a week and to avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish because of high mercury levels. These recommendations emphasize that women who are or may become pregnant, nursing mothers, and young children should eat fish, avoiding only four specific fish species. The evidence for the rest of the population supports eating fish twice a week and emphasizes the importance of including a variety of fish and seafood in your diet.