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Eat More Fish or Less?

Armen Hareyan's picture

Nutritious diet and fish

Not to overreact to concerns about seafood consumption, including mercury in fish.

At a time when concerns about mercury in seafood are causing many Americans to eat less fish, a leading women's health group today issued this wake-up call for the American public and especially women: not getting enough seafood in the diet may rob you and your family of important health benefits.

At a Washington press conference, the National Women's Health Resource Center (NWHRC), joined by noted scientific authorities on the risks and benefits of seafood consumption, announced the findings of a comprehensive review summarizing the range of new studies focusing on the risks and benefits of seafood consumption. Issued as a nationwide call to action, this review concludes that the benefits of the omega-3 fatty acids in fish are substantial.

While there are documented risks to the unborn fetus if pregnant women consume high amounts of mercury in fish, experts at the event reported that the benefits from omega-3 fatty acids outweigh the risk if women of childbearing age eat the same amount of fish but replace fish high in mercury with fish low in mercury. According to government guidelines, commonly consumed varieties of fish that are low in mercury include shrimp, salmon, pollock, rainbow trout, catfish and canned light tuna.

"Fish and shellfish are an important part of a healthy diet, but unfortunately, the many benefits of seafood are being discounted by consumers worried about mercury levels in fish," said Amy Niles, president of the National Women's Health Resource Center. "We need to right the balance so that the public will know that fish is a safe and a very healthy food and is critical to a balanced and nutritious diet."

Of key significance, the review finds that because the body cannot manufacture the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, people who restrict their fish consumption out of fear about mercury may be putting themselves and their families at a greater risk for such disabling conditions as heart disease and stroke. Here, NWHRC cited the findings of a landmark 5-part analysis conducted by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis. Published last week in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, the study concludes that for women of childbearing age, cognitive benefits can be achieved with virtually no negative impact on the developing child if women of childbearing age eat two servings a week of fish that are low in mercury.

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In contrast, if pregnant women consume less of the essential omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, the new Harvard study finds that the benefits on cognitive development of their offspring may be reduced by as much as 80 percent. For the rest of the population, the study links lower fish consumption with a significant increase in the risk of heart disease and stroke. According to the new research, among 65 to 74 year old men, the annual mortality risk would increase by nearly 1 in 10,000.

"Fish are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, which may protect against coronary heart disease and stroke, and are thought to aid in the neurological development of unborn babies," said Joshua Cohen, lead author and senior research associate at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis. "If that information gets lost in how the public perceives this issue, then people may inappropriately curtail fish consumption and increase their risk for adverse health outcomes."

Adding to the impact of these findings, the review by the National Women's Health Resource Center's review specifically documents the many significant health benefits of fish consumption throughout the lifespan. Based on the conclusions of newly published studies, the review finds that during pregnancy, the omega-3 fatty acids in fish enhance brain and eye development of the fetus, prolong gestation, increase birth weight and reduce the likelihood of premature birth. During childhood, omega-3 fatty acids aid cognitive and visual development. The review of new studies also finds that besides reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke in adults, the omega-3 fatty acids in fish are associated with a slower decline in mental acuity in older people and the chance of developing Alzheimer's disease.

"There is no debate within the scientific community that the fatty acids in fish are essential for human health. Study after study demonstrates that from birth to old age, omega-3 fatty acids confer important health benefits, from optimal brain function and the reduced risk of heart attack and stroke to improved eye health," said Joyce Nettleton, D.Sc., R.D., author of Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Health and a seafood nutritionist. "The take-away message for the public is fish is a healthful food for people of all ages."

Besides reporting these important health benefits, the National Women's Health Resource Center also cited some new research findings that are especially troubling. According the an opinion poll commissioned by the University of Maryland's Center for Food, Nutrition and Agriculture Policy, concerns about mercury in fish are affecting the American diet in unfortunate ways. The new poll of 1,040 adult Americans (522 men, 518 women) finds that almost one-third of respondents (31 percent) report being concerned about the amount mercury in fish and shellfish. As a result, the survey finds that many consumers are either changing the types of seafood they eat (55 percent), eating seafood less often (43 percent) or reducing the portion size (35 percent).

What makes these new findings disturbing, according to the National Center for Women's Health Research, is that the majority of Americans are already not getting the amount of fish and shellfish needed to reap the many health benefits conferred by the omega-3 fatty acids in seafood. Although the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that Americans aged 2 and over get two servings of fish a week, the University of Maryland survey shows that only a third of adults (36 percent) eat fish and shellfish once a week or more. In contrast, over half of the public (53 percent) eats fish/shellfish a couple times a month or less and virtually no one reports eating fish every day.

To guide mercury-concerned consumers who may be turning away from seafood, the National Women's Health Resource Center announced a national "teach in" for the public about the health benefits of seafood across the lifespan. The goal will be to translate the latest research findings into consumer-friendly information so that women will be able to make informed choices for themselves and their families based on fact and not fear.

The National Women's Health Resource Center is the leading independent health information resource for women. Dedicated to helping women make informed decisions about their health, NWHRC serves as a national clearinghouse for information about women's health issues and encourages women to embrace healthy lifestyles to promote wellness and prevent disease.