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Mercury in Fish and Shellfish: What You Need to Know

by Cathy Bedford, M.D., Pediatrician, Northeast Pediatric Clinic

Fish and shellfish are an important part of a healthy diet. Fish and shellfish contain high-quality protein and other essential nutrients; they are low in saturated fat, and contain omega-3 fatty acids. A well-balanced diet that includes a variety of fish and shellfish can contribute to heart health and children's proper growth and development. So, women and young children should include fish or shellfish in their diets due to the many nutritional benefits.

However, nearly all fish and shellfish contain traces of mercury. For most people, the risk from mercury by eating fish and shellfish is not a health concern. Yet, some fish and shellfish contain higher levels of mercury that may harm an unborn baby or young child's developing nervous system. The risks from mercury in fish and shellfish depend on the amount of fish and shellfish eaten and the levels of mercury in the fish and shellfish. Therefore, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are advising women who may become pregnant, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and young children to avoid some types of fish, and eat fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury.

By following these three recommendations for selecting and eating fish and shellfish, women and young children will receive the benefits of eating fish and shellfish, and be confident that they have reduced their exposure to the harmful effects of mercury. The same recommendations should be followed for young children, except that their portions should be smaller.

1. Do not eat: Shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish - they contain high levels of mercury.

2. Do eat: (up to 12 ounces a week) of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury - such as shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish. Albacore ("white") tuna has more mercury than canned light tuna. So, when choosing your two meals of fish and shellfish, you may eat up to 6 ounces of albacore tuna per week and 6 ounces of another low-mercury fish.

3. Check local advisories about the safety of fish caught by family and friends in your local lakes and rivers. If no advice is available, eat up to 6 ounces (one average meal) per week of fish you catch from local waters, but don't consume any other fish during that week.

Visit the Food and Drug Administration's Food Safety website or the Environmental Protection Agency's Fish Advisory website for a listing of mercury levels in fish.

Frequently Asked Questions about Mercury in Fish and Shellfish:

1. What is mercury?
Mercury occurs naturally in the environment and can be released into the air through industrial pollution. Mercury falls from the air and can accumulate in streams and oceans. It is turned into methylmercury in the water. This is the type of mercury that can be harmful to your unborn baby and young child. Fish absorb the methylmercury as they feed in these waters. Methylmercury builds up more in some types of fish/shellfish more than others, depending on what the fish eat. That is why the levels vary.

2. Is there methylmercury in all fish and shellfish?
Nearly all fish and shellfish contain traces of methylmercury. However, larger fish that have lived longer have the highest levels of methylmercury because they've had more time to accumulate it. These large fish (swordfish, shark, king mackerel and tilefish) pose the greatest risk. Other types of fish and shellfish may be eaten in the amounts recommmended by FDA and EPA.

3. What about fish sticks and fast food sandwiches?
Fish sticks and "fast-food" sandwiches are commonly made from fish that are low in mercury.

4. What if I eat more than the recommended amount of fish and shellfish in a week?
One week's consumption of fish does not change the level of methylmercury in the body much at all. If you eat a lot of fish one week, you can cut back for the next week or two. Just make sure you average the recommended amount per week.

Categories: Food & Recipes, MomShare,

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