A fish story: How safe is your catch?

Pregnant women and young children need to be careful when eating certain species of fish.

There is nothing better than going fishing and serving that catch later for dinner. But is the catch of the day safe?

Fish is a great source of low-fat protein and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Fish has been long called brain food because it is such a good source of low-fat protein. The nutritional value of fish is important during growth and development before birth, in early infancy for breastfed babies, and in childhood. A serving size for an adult is four ounces. The four ounce serving is roughly the size of the palm of an adult’s hand or when it is cooked the size of a deck of cards. 

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have published an advisory on the eating of fish because some fish contain high levels of mercury. This advisory is particularly important for pregnant women (or those who might become pregnant) or breastfeeding women and young children.

The advisory recommends eating eight to twelve ounces of a variety of fish each week from the choices of fish that are lower in mercury. The advice on fish includes shellfish. This is equal to roughly two to three servings of fish per week. Many of the commonly eaten fish such as salmon, shrimp, Pollack, tuna (light canned), tilapia, catfish, and cod are lower in mercury.

There are four types of fish that should be avoided. These fish are tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, shark, swordfish, and king mackerel. These fish have the highest concentration of mercury. White albacore tuna should be eaten in limited quantity, only six ounces per week. 

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has issued Statewide Safe Fish Guidelines. A free copy of the Eat Safe Fish Guide can be obtained online.The primary concern for the Statewide Safe Fish Guidelines is the bioaccumulation of chemicals such as mercury, dioxins, DDT, and PCBs in the flesh of the fish found in local lakes, rivers, and streams. Bioaccumulation is the term used to describe the buildup of chemicals in the body of the fish. When people eat a lot of fish that have chemicals in them, these chemicals build up in their body too. While the chemicals in the fish won’t make people sick right away, they could cause health problems someday.

The chemicals like PCBs and dioxins have been linked to cancer and diabetes as well as other diseases. The accumulation of mercury in the body can damage the brain, heart, and nerves.

Although the statewide safe fish guidelines were developed for pregnant women and young children, people who have health problems such as cancer, heart disease, or diabetes should pay attention to them as well. 

For the Michigan Statewide Safe Fish Guidelines, serving size is the term that is used. Eight ounces of fish is roughly the size of the large oval that encompasses an adult hand. Four ounces is represented by the palm of an adult’s hand. Finally two ounces is equal to half the size of an adult hand.

For someone who weighs 45 pounds, a MI serving size would be two ounces. For someone who weighs 90 pounds, four ounces would be a MI serving size. For someone who weighs, 180 pounds, a MI serving size would be eight ounces of fish.

To figure out how much a MI serving size is for other weights use the following formulas:

  • For every 20 pounds less than the weight listed subtract one ounce of fish. An example would be 70 pound child’s portion MI serving size would be three ounces. 90 pounds- 20 pounds = 70 pounds. Four ounces -  one ounce = a MI serving size of three ounces. 
  • For every 20 pounds more than the weight listed, add one ounce of fish. An example would be: a 110 pound person’s MI serving size would be five ounces of fish. 90 pounds + 20 pounds = 110 pounds. Four ounces + one ounce = a MI serving size of five ounces. 

Michigan State University Extension recommends following these tips to help lower the risk from chemicals in the fish:

  • Smaller fish are better because they tend to have fewer chemicals
  • Avoid eating large predator fish and bottom feeders.
  • Remove the fat and skin from the fish. Some chemicals are store in the fat of the fish.
  • Eat fish that have been broiled or grilled on a rack because the fat has the chance to drip away during cooking. 

Fish are still a great source of low fat protein and nutritionally valuable for the growth and development of the brain. Pregnant women and young children need to be aware of how much fish they are consuming to avoid potential health problems. So enjoy that fresh catch of the day with caution!

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