Healthy Wild Fish!
From snapper to sole, tilapia to tilefish, there’s a wide variety of fish to choose from at your grocer’s fish counter. The American Heart Association (AHA) says that eating at least two 3.5-ounce servings of fish per week, such as salmon, mackerel, herring, lake trout, sardines, and albacore tuna, can help beat heart disease and heart attack. But there’s a catch: Research shows that so-called “heart-healthy” fish like these may not be so healthy for you after all.
In fact, according to the AHA and other leading health organizations, some types of fish may contain high levels of methylmercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, and other harmful environmental chemicals. These contaminants can negate fish’s heart health benefits and increase the risk of cancer, says David O. Carpenter, MD, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany in Rensselaer, New York.
For your heart and health in general, “the advice should not be just eat fish, but to eat the right kinds of fish,” Dr. Carpenter says.
How PCBs and Mercury Can Impact Your Health
Methylmercury is a heavy metal that naturally occurs in the environment. It can also get released into the air as a gas from air pollution. From the air, mercury can fall into oceans and streams, where it gets converted into a harmful form known as methylmercury. When fish swim in methylmercury infested waters, methylmercury binds to their protein (the part you eat).
“The only significant source of methylmercury in the diet is seafood,” Carpenter says.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently updated their advice about eating fish and shellfish for women and children because methylmercury is harmful to an unborn baby’s and a young child’s developing neurological system. A study published in August 2015 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives and other studies have linked prenatal methylmercury exposure to lower IQ in school-age children. According to the EPA and FDA, children, women who are pregnant or nursing, and women of childbearing age should avoid eating high-mercury fish, such as:
- King mackerel
- Orange roughy
- Tilefish (from the Gulf of Mexico)
- Tuna (bigeye)
But a review published in October 2012 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutritionshows that such high-mercury fish may also be dangerous for the adult heart. High levels of methylmercury can increase the risk of heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure, and stroke. If you have high blood pressure, heart disease, or have had a stroke, a study published in January 2017 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health suggests that you might want to get your mercury level checked. Your doctor can perform a simple blood or urine test, according to the New York State Department of Health.
Similarly, PCBs are environmental contaminants found in oceans and streams. But unlike methylmercury, which accumulates in fish protein, PCBs gather in fish fat. The main source of PCBs are fish and seafood products, according to the EPA. PCBs can also be found in red meat, chicken, eggs, and dairy products. After consuming food with PCBs, they accumulate in your body. PCBs aren’t harmful to your heart. Still, over time, “they increase the risk of every kind of cancer,” Carpenter says.
All told, for heart health, Carpenter suggests knowing your fish and not beating yourself up if you don’t get in your two weekly servings of fish. Contrary to the recommendations of the AHA and because of the risk of contaminants, Carpenter eats fish only about once a week. “Fish should be part of a balanced diet but two fish meals a week is not really a wise recommendation,” he says.
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