Lately, there have been mixed reports about mercury in fish making rounds on the internet. Undoubtedly, fish is a great source of protein, low in saturated fats, contains essential nutrients and omega-3 fatty acids. In fact, the American Heart Association recommends incorporating fish in your diet at least twice a week. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns against eating fish with high mercury levels. Following these concerns, you must be confused if you should eat or avoid eating fish, the side effects of mercury, and if there are fish without mercury.
Is Mercury Harmful to Your Health?
Mercury is a naturally occurring metal found in rocks, soil, and water all around the environment. Human activities such as burning fossil fuels including coal and oil, as well as farming, manufacturing, mining, and waste incineration, exposes the mercury which then liquefies with rain to form molecules that flow into our rivers, lakes, and oceans.
Sea plants such as algae absorb the mercury. When fish and other seafood eat these sea plants, they absorb these molecules which become part of their fat tissue. We then absorb the mercury when we consume fish containing the mercury traces.
Although our bodies can handle lower levels of this toxic metal, there is no level of mercury that’s safe to ingest.
Mercury is a toxic metal and exposure to it has been linked to serious health conditions including:
- Parkinson’s disease
- Heart attack
- High levels of “bad” cholesterol
Studies show that high mercury levels affect neurological and heart functioning. However, the benefits of eating fish outweigh these risks and having the right information about the type of fish to eat will help you lower mercury intake.
Should You Avoid Fish Because of the Mercury?
Shellfish, fish and other seafood are healthy foods and for most people, the traces of mercury shouldn’t be a major cause for concern. Experts recommend a balanced diet containing fish for a healthy heart and children’s development. Certain types of fish and shellfish contain high mercury levels and eating large amounts of these fish exposes our bodies to these toxic metal. These could damage our nervous system and the brain.Studies conducted on fish from more than 200 streams in the U.S. found that 25 percent of the fish contained more than the recommended limit of mercury in fish.
Large fish were especially found to carry more mercury levels because they eat smaller fish with smaller traces which accumulates over time. Below is a list of fish with high levels of mercury:
- King mackerel
- Bigeye tuna
The most commonly eaten fish and seafood with low mercury levels include:
- Canned light tuna
Who Should Avoid Fish Containing High Mercury Levels?
Surprisingly, mercury in fish affects people differently. While for some the effects may not be adverse, for others, especially pregnant women, women who may become pregnant, breastfeeding mothers, and young children, exposure to mercury could have serious health side effects.
Fetuses are at even greater risk and since mercury can easily be passed to a pregnant woman’s fetus or an infant during breastfeeding, pregnant women should avoid these types of fish completely. Studies show that children who were exposed to mercury while in the womb developed difficulties with language, attention, and memory.
How to Safely Eat Fish
Eating fish is healthy considering the health benefits they provide. The following recommendations will guide you on how to eat fish safely.
- Avoid swordfish, sharks, king mackerel, tilefish, and other fish with high levels of mercury.
- Eat an average of two to three servings (8-12 ounces) of fish with low mercury levels every week.
- When buying fish from the local rivers and lakes, check the local advisories for their safety.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women should avoid eating raw fish because they are more prone to bacteria which can cause illnesses.
It takes up to one year for mercury levels to start dropping from your body after you stop eating a lot of fish with high levels of mercury. That’s why it’s crucial that women who are planning a pregnancy to check the type of fish they eat earlier on.
The mercury levels in fish and seafood should not prevent you from eating fish altogether. Most of the traces of this toxic metal can’t cause harm unless ingested in large amounts over a long period of time.
However, knowing the type of fish to avoid and following the guidelines stated above will help to protect you from mercury exposure. Pregnant women, women planning to be pregnant and young children are more vulnerable to the health risks associated with mercury exposure. Therefore, their diet should be carefully checked to ensure they only consume fish with low mercury levels.
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