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The Pros and Cons of Fish

By: Dr. Joey Shulman, D.C., RNCP

With recent mixed reports on the mercury levels in fish, many people are confused about whether to rely on fish as a protein source. Read on for the latest information on safe and healthy fish consumption for you and your family.

The Pros
It is no secret that fish is an excellent source of lean protein. In addition, cold-water fish, such as salmon, tuna, sardines and anchovies, contain healthy fats called omega-3 essential fatty acids. Omega-3 fat is broken down into easily absorbable units called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). DHA has been shown to provide several health benefits including skin improvement, cardiovascular health, anti-inflammatory effects and brain-boosting power.

Unfortunately, in today’s world of overprocessed foods and “funny” fats, such as partially hydrogenated fats, most people are deficient in omega-3 essential fatty acids. In addition to taking a high quality fish oil supplement, it is best to include omega-3 rich foods in your diet, such as cold-water fish, omega-3 eggs and walnuts.

The Cons
The cons of fish have to do with the amount of mercury now being found in certain cold-water fish. It is estimated that mercury levels in the environment have increased three to five times in the past century due to industrial operations such as pulp and paper processing, burning garbage and fossil fuels, mining operations and releases from dental offices.

Mercury is an element that is toxic in all its forms. In fish, mercury appears in the form of methyl mercury which can be very damaging to the nervous system. Effects can range from learning disorders and developmental delays to headaches, migraines and seizures. Large predator fish, such as swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish and shark, which feed on smaller fish, have a greater chance of accumulating methyl mercury.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises that women of childbearing age and young children avoid larger fish such as swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish and shark. Excluding the aforementioned fish, the FDA states that all individuals can safely eat 12 ounces per week of cooked, smaller fish such as shellfish, canned fish or smaller ocean fish.



The Environmental Protection Agency is more conservative in their recommendations, however, and recommends women in their childbearing years consume no more than six ounces of fish per week and children consume no more than two ounces of fish per week. Examples of fish with lower mercury levels are salmon, cod, catfish, trout, pollock, clams, shrimp, scallops and lobster.

Safe Levels
In June, the World Health Organization (WHO) changed the level of mercury consumption considered safe from 3.6 to 1.5 micrograms per kilogram of body weight per day. The Environmental Protection Agency has set its reference level even lower at 0.1 microgram per kilogram of body weight per day. The Food and Drug Administration’s level is 0.4 micrograms per kilogram of body weight.

Is Tuna Safe?
Tuna is a favorite fish, appearing in over 90% of households. In fact, approximately 20% of U.S. fish consumption is from tuna. Children and pregnant women eat more than twice as much tuna as any other fish.

A public interest group, the Mercury Policy Project, conducted a study to investigate mercury levels in canned tuna found on grocery shelves. The study revealed that mercury levels were 30% higher than the tuna industry had previously reported. Of the 48 tunas sampled, over three were found to contain mercury levels considerably higher than the Food and Drug Administration’s recommendations. They concluded from their results that one of every 20 cans of white or albacore tuna should be recalled as being unsafe for human consumption.

When purchasing tuna, choose albacore or chunk light varieties; they have less mercury than solid white or chunk white tuna.

For more information on mercury levels in seafood species, please click here.



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