Is it Really Safe to Include a Lot of Fish in Your Diet?

Nutritionists and health experts agree; making sure that fish is a part of your diet offers a tremendous number of health benefits. The omega 3 fatty acids that most fish contain are especially beneficial for brain and heart health (by the way, pretty interesting website: http://www.allaboutfishoil.org), meaning that even for children fish is a great addition to their standard 'meal plan'.

There is a concern among many people though about the possibility that the fish they buy in the supermarket may contain harmful contaminants though. With the environment certainly not in the best shape all over the world it is in many ways a valid concern, but it is important to cut through the misinformation that is out there and determine what the real risks are and how they can be avoided.

What Contaminants Might Be in the Fish You Buy?

The contaminants in fish do not come from the fish themselves of course, but from the waters they live in. The ones that concern people the most break down as follows:

  • Metals, primarily lead and mercury
  • Artificially introduced industrial chemicals like PCBs
  • Pesticide residues

How Do these Contaminants Get into the Water?

The most common way that contaminants are introduced into the waters that the world's fish population calls home is via industrial waste runoffs. This situation has improved in many areas though as stricter environmental regulations have forced many companies to change their practices.

The environment can be a problem itself. Rainwater washes contaminants from the land, such as pesticides, into the water. The levels at which it does so will of course vary by the activity in the area, so places where there are a lot of traditional farms in the areas near the water.

What Health Risks do These Contaminants Pose?

To men and women who are past their childbearing years research has found that contaminants in fish pose very little risk and the health benefits outweigh the risks significantly.

The concern is for women who are, or might become, pregnant. Some research has found that pregnant women who consume fish with higher contaminant levels may give birth to children who are slightly slower to develop mentally. However, as Omega 3 fatty acids are essential for the formation of a young brain it is no longer recommended that pregnant women avoid fish altogether, just that they stick to low contaminant species and the same advice is offered for children.

What Types of Fish are Likely to Contain the Most Contaminants?

The fish that pose the biggest risk of contamination are those that are considered 'bottom feeders' as most of the contaminants in the water 'sink' and settle at the bottom of rivers, streams and sea beds rather than floating in the water. These fish include wild striped bass, sea bass) bluefish, eels, and sea trout (not river trout) mackerel, swordfish and shark. Tuna, both yellowfin and albacore contains moderate levels of mercury and should be consumed in limited quantities (about once a week) If you can find skipjack tuna however it has far lower levels of mercury and can be consumed more often, so checking the labels on the canned tuna fish at the supermarket can be very helpful.

There are some fish species that contain such low levels of contaminants that they have been deemed by health officials to be 'enjoy as you please' fish and can be eaten with great regularity to maximize the health benefits for everyone. The list of these types of fish is surprisingly large and does include all forms of salmon, haddock, flounder, tilapia, whitefish and even shellfish like crab and shrimp.

Overall there is no reason for anyone to remove fish from their diet at this point, just to be mindful about the types of fish they choose and, if at all possible, discovering the origins of the fish can help as well.

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