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Fish consumption weighing the hazards and the benefits.

I am a woman of childbearing age, and I am confused. I have always been health conscious in my adult life, and began a vegetarian diet when I was only 17 years old. About five years ago when all the benefits of essential fatty acids became prevalent, and the idea of eating so many carbohydrates was frowned upon, I introduced fish back into my diet. I thought it was the perfect plan. Fish, fruits and vegetables, whole foods and grains--a few cheesy things and certainly chocolate here and there--but the main body of my diet was overall very healthy, and I felt good about it ... until last year. Last year became the year of good and bad news about fish.

First came the bad news ... In March 2004 a press release was made public by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) saying that nearly all fish contain traces of mercury-some with high enough levels to harm an unborn baby or young child's developing nervous system. The warning was issued for women of childbearing age with the potential to become pregnant, those who were already pregnant, and those who were nursing. Another press release followed in August of 2004 stating that 1/3 of the nation's lakes and 1/4 of its riverways are contaminated with toxic levels of mercury and other contaminants. Pregnant women and children were warned not to consume fish from these sources. (1)

At first I wasn't sure how concerned to be about all this news, even though it was coming from very credible and scientifically conservative sources, but as it mounted I started to look into it further. It turns out that recently both the Centers for Disease Control as well as the Journal of the American Medical Association published studies stating that 8-10% of women of childbearing age had potentially dangerous levels of mercury toxicity. Additionally, a warning was issued from a panel of the National Academy of Sciences stating that some children born from mothers exposed to mercury are at risk of becoming children "who have to struggle to keep up in school and who might require remedial classes of special education." (2,3)

Then came the good news ... Although I had no plans of becoming pregnant, I also wanted to keep that option open for the future ... so I began to reduce the amount of fish I ate, and become very picky about what types of fish I was including in my diet. I no longer had the perfect diet ... but rather one that could possibly be making me sicker. On the other hand, I knew from my own research that fish oils were good for you. They are an excellent source of essential fatty acids (EFAs), which are intergral to many of our body functions. And EFAs are something we don't get from our diets. To top it off, there were new reports about the potential benefit of one EFA, in particular, called DHA, as being a key omega-3 fatty acid that had a lot of new research surfacing about its importance. The best dietary sources of DHA are fish. In fact, another EFA that was making headlines, EPA, was also from fish. Together each of these EFAs have been linked to a number of health benefits, including reducing the risk of coronary heart disease, stabilizing the mood and reducing depressive states, and attention-deficit disorder (ADD). Additionally, fish oil on its own has been linked to lower rates of disease.

Then in September of 2004 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced a qualified health claim for EPA and DHA and their effect on reducing risk of coronary heart disease. (4) Now I became really confused. How do I weight the benefits of eating fish with the potential problem with mercury toxicity? So, I began to look around for answers.

What do we do about it? First of all, the FDA and the CDC did give some advice about what to do about it ... and this advice is actually pretty helpful.

1. Eat certain kinds of fish: The FDA and CDC advise to eat up to 12 ounces weekly of certain types of fish that are usually low in mercury. These include shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish. Avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish. In addition, if you are buying or catching fish locally, check local advisories about the status of the waterways near you. (1)

As I looked for cleaner sources of fish products, I found a few good sources. Top on the list is a seafood company that supplies frozen fish and fish entrees to restaurants and healthfood stores, called EcoFish (see ; 603-430-0101). This company has organic and wild caught seafood, all with the primary goal of producing a natural premium quality source for fish, and caring for the environment. They have even created a new label that gives a sort of mercury rating: a recommended number of meals for women of childbearing age on each product. Another good company I found is called Wildcatch, which supplies salmon fillets, canned salmon, and even salmon jerky. They test their salmon to be at 0.03 ppm for mercury which is much lower than the allowed limit set by the FDA, of 1 ppm (this is purposely 10 times lower than the lowest level associated with health problems).

However, some people may want to be ultra-conservative, or may prefer not to eat seafood, but still want the health benefits from consumption of EPA and DHA for themselves and their baby.

2. Without eating fish, you may get benefits by supplementing the diet: An alternative and easy way to get EPA and DHA is by taking dietary supplements. There are fish oils, as well as other sources of DHA and EPA on the market that have been tested to be either very low or free from mercury contamination.

Fish oils, as well as DHA supplements from algae are available. These allow you to get the benefits without having to eat the fish. Of course, you may also supplement a diet that is low in fish to increase the amounts of the good omega-3 essential fatty acids. One trick I learned recently with these is to also take a lipase enzyme with my EFA supplement, so that I did not burp fish oil--a common and unpleasant result of supplementing with fish oil. Strangely, I found that I could also digest fish meals better with a lipase enzyme.

3. Dietary cleanses: Certain cleansing or detoxification programs can help lower the body burden of heavy metal toxicity.

Beyond reducing my intake of mercury, I have become curious about the potential to cleanse my body of mercury that may have accumulated due to diet, and possibly also due to my amalgam fillings.

New evidence shows that low-methoxy, modified citrus pectin (PectaSol(r) MCP) may be able to gently detoxify the body from heavy metals and lower the total body mercury burden. (5,6) Practitioners have had some success using homeopathy in detoxing mercury, Additionally, there are other products on the market for detoxing mercury, such as pads that you stick to the bottom of your feet while you sleep, but there is no clinical evidence to support their effectiveness.

I now hear my diet is becoming one of the next popular trends, called the Mediterranean Diet--a diet characterized by high amounts of fish, fresh vegetables, and olive oil. I am reassured that it is the right diet for me, but only after educating myself on the ways to avoid mercury toxicity. Unfortunately, in today's world no matter what diet you choose, there are going to be concerns--whether you eat beef and you are concerned about mad cow disease, or other hormones and chemicals in beef production, or the benefits and drawbacks of soy foods in a meatless diet. Our concerns are due both in part to environmental degradation as well as the wealth of information that is available to us. Either way, our path in creating health for ourselves is our own, and we should all take responsibility in educating others and ourselves in spreading wellness.


(1.) FDA Statement: What you need to know about mercury in fish and shellfish. (See:

(2.) CDC Press Release: Blood and Hair Mercury Levels in Young Children and Women of Childbearing Age--United States, 1999 (see:

(3.) Schober, SE, Sinks, TH, Jones, RL et al. (2003) "Blood mercury levels in US children and women of childbearing age, 1999-2000". Journal of the American Medical Association. 289(13):1667-74.

(4.) FDA Announces Qualified Health Claims for Omega-3 Fatty Acids

(5.) Eliaz, I. (2004) "Modified citrus pectin (MCP) in the treatment of cancer". Paper presented at: The American Chemical Society Annual Meeting; Philadelphia, PA.

(6.) Eliaz, I. and D. Rode (2003). "The effect of modified citrus pectin on the urinary excretion of toxic elements". Fifth Annual Conference of Environmental Health Scientists: Nutritional Toxicology and Metabolomics, University of California, Davis.

Kerry Hughes, M.Sc. is the Founder and Director of EthnoPharm Consulting. She is Editor and Co-Author of Botanical Medicines: The Desk Reference for Major Herbal Supplements, Haworth Press (2002) and The Natural Dietary Supplement Pocket Reference, INPR.
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Title Annotation:Women's Health
Author:Hughes, Kerry
Publication:Special Delivery
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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