Eating fish provides important nutrients, including protein, vitamin D, selenium, omega-3 fatty acids, and iodine. However, concerns have been raised that some people may be consuming harmful amounts of certain contaminants found in fish, such as mercury, industrial pollutants like PCBs, and pesticides like DDT.
How much fish should you eat?
Most major health organizations recommend eating fish, particularly fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines, at least twice a week. This amount, about 8 ounces total, can provide significant health benefits. However, it’s also important not to exceed recommended limits for contaminants like mercury. Here are some general guidelines:
- Eat 8-12 ounces (2 average meals) of a variety of fish per week.
- Choose low mercury fish like salmon, shrimp, pollock, tuna (in moderation), tilapia, catfish, and cod.
- Limit high mercury fish like swordfish, shark, king mackerel, tilefish, and albacore tuna to no more than 6 ounces per week.
- Avoid raw and uncooked fish.
- Check local advisories about fish caught from local lakes, rivers, and coastal areas.
- If pregnant or breastfeeding, do not eat high mercury fish and limit albacore tuna to 6 ounces per week.
Health benefits of eating fish
Here are some of the top scientifically proven ways that eating fish can boost health and nutrition:
- Heart health: Omega-3 fatty acids from fish lower triglycerides, reduce blood clotting, decrease inflammation, and lower blood pressure. This can significantly reduce risk of heart attack and stroke.
- Brain function: Omega-3s are integral for brain development and function. They may improve memory, focus, and cognitive abilities.
- Vision health: DHA omega-3 is a primary structural component of the retina. It helps prevent macular degeneration.
- Mental health: Omega-3 intake is linked to reduced risk of depression, anxiety, ADHD, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.
- Pregnancy benefits: DHA during pregnancy improves baby’s visual and neural development. It lowers risk of preterm birth.
- Cancer prevention: Components in fish may help prevent several cancers, including colorectal, prostate, and breast cancer.
- Diabetes: Fish protein helps regulate blood sugar. Omega-3s improve insulin resistance which helps control diabetes.
- Joint pain: The anti-inflammatory abilities of omega-3s can help reduce pain and swelling in rheumatoid arthritis.
- Autoimmune diseases: Omega-3s can reduce risk and symptoms of some autoimmune diseases like lupus and nephrotic syndrome.
Overall, eating fish provides protein, vitamins, minerals, and unique health boosting fatty acids not found commonly in other foods.
Potential risks of eating too much fish
Despite the benefits, there are some potential risks to be aware of from contaminants in seafood:
- Mercury: All fish contain traces of mercury, but older and larger predatory fish accumulate the most. Too much mercury can damage the brain and nervous system, especially in fetuses and young children.
- PCBs: These industrial chemicals build up in fish tissues and have toxic effects. They can disrupt hormones and contribute to cancer.
- Pesticides: Like DDT, pesticide residues are still found in some fish. They have been linked to development issues, cancer, and diabetes risk.
- Parasites: Raw, pickled, and undercooked fish may contain harmful parasites. Freezing to the proper temperature kills any parasites.
- Toxins: Some seafood may contain natural toxins like ciguatera from algae, scombroid from spoilage, or shellfish toxins. Cooking doesn’t eliminate these.
- Allergies: Some people, especially children, may have fish or shellfish allergies that can cause serious reactions.
- Bacteria: Raw or undercooked seafood can cause foodborne illnesses. Proper handling and cooking is key.
For most people eating a typical amount of fish, these contaminants and toxins are not a significant concern. But for those eating fish frequently, much more than recommended amounts, risks increase.
How much mercury is in fish?
Mercury is perhaps the biggest concern when it comes to eating large amounts of fish. Nearly all fish contain traces of mercury, but levels can vary widely based on factors like species, size, lifespan, and diet. In general:
- Larger, older predator fish have the highest mercury levels.
- Smaller fish like sardines have very low mercury.
- Plant-eating fish like tilapia also have lower mercury.
- Long-living fish like orange roughy accumulate more mercury.
Here are typical mercury levels for popular seafood choices:
|Fish||Mercury Level (ppm)|
|Tuna – fresh/frozen||0.382|
|Tuna – canned||0.350|
|Chilean sea bass||0.241|
|Salmon – fresh/frozen||0.022|
As a general rule, fish with under 0.05 ppm are considered low mercury, 0.05-0.2 ppm is moderate mercury, and over 0.3 ppm is high. Albacore tuna (canned chunk white) averages around 0.35 ppm, making it a high mercury fish.
How much mercury is too much?
No amount of mercury is considered completely safe, but tiny trace amounts in most fish are not a significant concern. Here are the main guidelines for allowable mercury exposure from seafood:
- For most adults, up to 0.1 ppm of mercury per day from seafood is considered safe.
- For pregnant women, limit to 0.075 ppm (12 ounces of albacore provides almost 0.1 ppm).
- For children, total allowance is lower based on smaller body weight.
Exceeding these amounts does not guarantee negative effects, but it raises the risk of subtle neurological damage, so moderation is wise. Those who regularly eat high-mercury fish multiple times per week are most likely to go over the limits.
Symptoms of mercury poisoning
Acute mercury poisoning from extremely high exposure causes severe symptoms like:
- Impaired peripheral vision
- Lack of coordination/balance
- Numbness in hands and feet
- Memory problems
However, such severe poisoning from seafood consumption alone is very rare. More likely is chronic low-level exposure leading to subtle symptoms like:
- Mild tremors
The effects are most pronounced in children’s neurological development.
How much fish is too much?
There is no strict cutoff for how much total fish consumption is too much. The level of risk depends on the specific types of fish eaten, serving sizes, and individual factors like age and pregnancy status.
As a very general guideline based on average mercury levels in fish:
- Eating 8-12 ounces per week (1-2 servings) is recommended for most people.
- Eating fish 3-5 times per week is generally safe, provided it’s low mercury fish.
- Eating fish over 5 times per week may raise contaminant risk, especially if higher mercury fish.
However, these are rough estimates. To stay safe:
- Do not exceed recommended limits for mercury and PCBs based on your age and condition.
- Consume a variety of both low and high mercury fish.
- Balance benefits vs potential risks when eating more than the minimum recommendations.
Tips for eating fish safely
You can gain the health advantages of fish while minimizing potential risks by following seafood safety best practices:
- Eat fish low in mercury like salmon, shrimp, tilapia, pollock, cod
- Enjoy a variety – do not just eat high mercury fish
- Check local fish advisories for rivers and lakes
- Limit albacore tuna to 6 ounces per week if pregnant
- Cook all fish thoroughly to at least 145°F internal temperature
- Avoid raw fish except from reputable sushi restaurants
- Buy quality inspected fish from sustainable sources when possible
- Keep raw and cooked fish separate and use separate utensils
- Store properly in refrigerator or freezer
With smart choices and careful handling, it’s possible to safely maximize the extensive proven health benefits of fish while minimizing exposure to contaminants.
Current dietary guidelines recommend eating fish, particularly fatty fish rich in omega-3s, at least twice a week. The many scientifically proven health benefits of fish consumption far outweigh potential risks for most people.
While no amount of exposure to pollutants is considered risk-free, mercury and other contaminants in fish are not a major concern for those sticking to recommended 1-2 servings per week.
Potential risks do increase for those eating large amounts of fish well above minimum recommendations, especially pregnant women and children. Still, moderation and smart choices can allow even frequent fish lovers to safely reap the substantial rewards.