Fish: Risk vs. Benefits – By Joel Fuhrman, M.D.

By August 13, 2005

Today, almost all current nutritional advice includes fish as a cornerstone of a healthful diet. But my recommendations are slightly different from those of other respected health authorities. While the differences may seem minor, they are significant, and I contend that they will make it possible for you to achieve extraordinarily good health and an extraordinarily long life span.

Fish: a mixed bag
Fish and shellfish contain high concentrations of protein and other essential nutrients, are low in saturated fat, and contain the valuable omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA. These food factors are thought to contribute to heart health and to children’s proper growth and development (there is overwhelming evidence confirming the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids),which is why fish and shellfish are considered to be an important part of a well-balanced diet.

Unfortunately,in addition to EPA and DHA, nearly all fish and shellfish contain mercury and other pollutants. Since these toxins in fish have potential health risks,wouldn’t it make sense to look for a cleaner, safer source for our omega-3 fats?

Fish polluted with mercury
Nearly all fish and shellfish contain traces of methylmercury. Mercury accumulates in fish when polluted water is filtered through their gills. The longer a fish lives, the more the mercury accumulates. Large fish eat small fish and accumulate all of the mercury that was in the small fish. Over a lifetime, this mounts up exponentially. Likewise, our tissues accumulate the mercury of all of the fish we eat throughout our lifetimes.

Authorities could warn us not to eat species of fish that contain high amounts of mercury. Instead, they warn us not to eat them too often, based on the misguided notion that the benefits of eating fish outweigh the potential harm from the exposure to mercury. It has been demonstrated conclusively that fish contain enough mercury to harm an unborn baby or harm a young child’s developing nervous system. Since the risks from mercury in fish and shellfish depend on the levels of mercury in the fish and shellfish and the amount of fish and shellfish eaten, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advise pregnant women, women who may become pregnant,nursing mothers, and young children to avoid some types of fish and only eat fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury.

The advice given by governmental authorities includes:
1. Never eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish because they contain high levels of mercury.

2. Check local advisories about the safety of eating local fish caught by family and friends in local rivers and coastal waterways. If unsure, don’t eat more than six ounces at a meal, and do not eat any other
fish during that week. EPA makes recommendations for what it considers an acceptable level of mercury in a pregnant woman’s body. As the recognition that mercury damages the brains of our children has increased in the last two decades, EPA has had to lower the “acceptable” level more than once.

I have been telling patients for years that if something can damage a fetus and result in childhood learning abnormalities, it can’t be a practice that promotes long-term health and wellness in adults. You can’t have it both ways.The developing fetus may be seen as a sensitive indicator of the potential of toxins to cause cellular damage. This potential damage is a risk to adult cells as well.We just may not see the damage in adults in as short a period of time. Subtle cellular damage from mercury can be a contributory factor in combination with other negative influences that lead to the development of diseases seen later in life. So it is not just youngsters who are at risk of brain damage.

Dr. Fuhrman’s Healthy Times™ Joel Fuhrman, M.D., Editor • Jeff Novick, M.S., R.D., Contributing Writer Lisa Walfield Fuhrman, Copy Editor • Editorial, design, and production services provided by Lennon Media, Inc. Dr. Fuhrman’s Healthy Times™ is published six times per year. ©2005 by Joel Fuhrman, M.D., P.C. All Rights Reserved.

IMPORTANT: Before adopting any kind of diet or medical program, please consult your doctor. The information in this newsletter is for informational purposes only, and is no substitute for a physician’s consultation and/or examination.