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Fish has more health benefits than risks

November 26, 2003|by LYNN F. LITTLE

Fish and other seafood long have been considered to be good sources of protein, zinc and iron, with the added advantage of being low in saturated fat and high in healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids help make blood less "sticky" and therefore less likely to form the clots that can contribute to heart disease. In addition, omega-3 fatty acids contribute to proper brain development of fetuses and infants, help lower blood pressure and can lower the risk of stroke.

In recent years, however, reports about contamination of some fish with methylmercury have raised concerns about the healthfulness of fish for some populations. Mercury is a metallic substance that occurs naturally in the environment. It also can be released into the air through industrial pollution. When mercury falls from the air, it gets into surface water, accumulating in streams and oceans. Bacteria in the water cause chemical changes that transform mercury into methylmercury that can be toxic, particularly to developing bodies. Fish absorb methylmercury from water as they feed on aquatic organisms.

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Nearly all fish contain trace amounts of methylmercury, but at levels that are not harmful to humans. It is only the long-lived, larger fish that feed on other fish that accumulate enough methylmercury to be considered potentially harmful, and then only to the developing nervous systems of a pregnant woman's unborn child.

Because of these concerns, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends that pregnant women, women who may become pregnant and children under the age of 6 avoid eating shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish, all of which are fish that can have high levels of mercury, or to limit consumption to once a month. All other fish are safe for pregnant women to eat, but the FDA recommends that pregnant women consume a variety of types of fish and average no more than 12 ounces of fish per week. With the typical serving of fish from 3 ounces to 6 ounces, this is still 2 to 3 servings of fish per week, even for pregnant women, the group advised to be moderate in their consumption of fish.

Fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna, trout, sardines and halibut, have the highest amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. The American Dietetic Association recommends eating fish two to three times per week to gain the health benefits. If you know you should be eating more fish but are having trouble incorporating it into your diet, here are some tips to help you get started:

  • Add seafood gradually. Try substituting fish for one meat meal per week.

  • Cook fish properly. For best results, use high temperature and a short cooking time. A good basic rule is 10 minutes per inch of thickness at 450 degrees.

  • Cook fish to an internal temperature of 145 degrees, or until it flakes easily with a fork.

  • Water-packed canned fish and frozen fish are just as healthy as fresh and provide a convenient and often less-expensive option.

  • Add fish or seafood to recipes that normally require beef or chicken.

  • Don't limit consumption to only one type of fish. Try a variety to gain as much nutritional benefit as possible.


For information about the risks of mercury in seafood, call toll-free at 1-888-SAFEFOOD (the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition 24 hours a day); or visit the FDA's Food Safety Web site at www.cfsan.fda.gov.




Colorful Fillets


  • 1 pound haddock or flounder, cut into serving pieces

  • 3 green onions, sliced

  • 1 cup fresh mushrooms, sliced

  • 1 cup chopped tomato

  • 1/8 teaspoon basil

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

  • Dash of pepper


Arrange fillets in an 8-by-8-inch glass baking dish. Top fillets with vegetables. Sprinkle with seasonings. Cover with plastic wrap and cook in microwave on full (high) power for 3 to 4 minutes, or until fish flakes easily with fork.

Serves 4; 136 calories per serving.




Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with University of Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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