New Study Confirms Nutritional Value of Fish, Cautions Pregnant Women

Oh, those wonderful omega-3 fatty acids. A new study published in the October 18 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) has found that even modest consumption of fish can reduce the risk of coronary death by 36 percent and reduce total mortality by 17 percent. However, due to high levels of mercury, pregnant and nursing women and women of childbearing age should still closely monitor their fish intake.

“For major health outcomes among adults,” the authors contend, “the benefits of fish intake exceed the potential risks. For women of childbearing age, benefits of modest fish intake, excepting a few selected species, also outweigh risks.” The study was undertaken by the Harvard School of Public Health because they believed that, due to the presence of contaminants in fish, there’s been “confusion over the role of fish consumption in a healthy diet.”

In a JAMA commentary from the same issue, Dr. Janet M. Torpy elaborated on the potential benefits of fish consumption. “Besides containing protein and other nutrients such as vitamin D and selenium,” she notes, “fish (either finfish or shellfish) contain a specific type of fat, omega-3 fatty acids, that may reduce the risk of developing heart disease and other medical problems…. These omega-3 fatty acids can help lower your blood pressure, lower your heart rate, and improve other cardiovascular risk factors.”

Torpy notes that fish consumption has been shown to lower risk of stroke, depression, and mental decline with age. She adds that even
“for pregnant women, mothers who are breastfeeding, and women of childbearing age, fish intake is important because it supplies DHA, a specific omega-3 fatty acid that is beneficial for the brain development of infants.”

In terms of the risks of eating fish, Torpy says that “mercury exposure from fish intake should not be a major concern for men or for women not of childbearing age.” But she also notes that mercury may have “subtle effects on the developing nervous systems of infants. Therefore, pregnant women, women who may become pregnant, those who are breastfeeding, and very young children should avoid four types of fish that are higher in mercury content: shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and golden bass.” Torpy also confirms the presence of other contaminants in fish, especially in farmed fish, but notes that the levels of contaminants such as dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) present negligible risks when compared to the potential benefits.

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academies issued their own report on October 17, highlighting the risks and benefits of fish consumption. Their report noted that women who are or may become pregnant or who are breastfeeding, as well as children up to 12 years old, should more carefully monitor their fish intake and limit it to 12 ounces per week–but only six ounces of white (albacore) tuna per week. They were also urged to avoid “large predatory fish such as shark, swordfish, tilefish, or king mackerel.”

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