Fish is an important part of a healthy diet. It's not only high in protein and low in fat, but it's also an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for brain and vision development and can reduce the risk of high blood pressure, cancer and other chronic diseases. Eating fish regularly can help prevent heart disease; that’s why the American Heart Association recommends that people eat 2-3 meals of fish every week.
Unfortunately, some fish contain harmful chemicals like mercury, PCBs and DDTs. If people consume too much contaminated fish, these chemicals can build up in the body and actually increase the risk of health problems.
For most people, eating fish - even quite a bit of it - doesn’t present a problem. However, developing fetuses and young children are especially sensitive to certain contaminants; high levels of mercury, for example, can cause subtle decreases in learning ability, attention and memory. For that reason, it's particularly important that growing children, pregnant and breastfeeding women and women who may become pregnant exercise caution about how much fish and the types of fish they eat.
To help reduce potential harm from contaminated fish, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed some safe eating guidelines. The guidelines provide information to help consumers choose the safest fish to eat and recommend how often these fish can be eaten for the greatest health benefits and minimum risk to health.
- Do not eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish because they contain high levels of mercury.
- Eat up to 12 ounces (2 average meals) a week of a variety of fish and shellfish that tend to be lower in mercury (e.g. shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock and catfish).
- Check local advisories about the safety of fish caught by family and friends in your local lakes, rivers and coastal areas. The Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) is responsible for providing fish consumption advice for water bodies in California; a complete listing of recommendations can be found at the State of California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment website. If no advice is available, eat up to 6 ounces (one average meal) per week of fish you catch yourself in local waters.
It's not just the kinds of fish you eat and the quantity you consume that's important. The way you prepare fish can also help protect you against chemical contaminants by reducing your exposure to them.
- Eat only the fillet of the fish. Throw away the fatty parts such as the head, guts, kidneys, liver, fat and skin because chemical contaminants tend to build up in them.
- Broil, grill, bake or steam fish on a rack to allow the fat to drain.
- Throw away the fat drippings; don’t use them in the preparation of other foods.