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Is It Still Safe to Eat Fish?

There’s been a ton of talk about the benefits of having a diet that includes a lot of fish. Unfortunately, there also are risks associated with a fish-filled diet.

Curious to know if the benefits outweighed the risks, we turned to the esteemed Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) to get their take on the pluses and minuses of this tasty diet. Here’s what they had to say.

On the positive side, here are the benefits of a fish-forward diet:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fish—especially oily fish such as salmon, sardines, and herring. These omega-3 fatty acids can help maintain healthy blood pressure, heart rate, and overall cardiovascular health.
  • Eating fish improves overall heart health (heart disease is the leading cause of death in both men and women). Fish intake has also been linked to a lower risk of stroke, depression, and mental decline with age.
  • 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.

On the risk side, here were their concerns:

  • Some fish contain mercury. For men and women not of childbearing age, it is not clear that mercury exposure from typical levels of fish intake has any adverse health effects. In contrast, fish intake has significant benefits for heart health. So, mercury exposure from fish intake should not be a major concern for men or for women not of childbearing age. The benefits of fish intake can be maximized by consuming a variety of different seafood.
  • 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 4 types of fish that are higher in mercury content: shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and golden bass. Other fish should still be consumed to ensure that infants receive the benefits of DHA for brain development. Light tuna has relatively low levels of mercury, and other fish, such as wild and farmed salmon and shrimp, contain very low levels of mercury.
  • Chemicals called dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) can accumulate in foods, including fish. The levels of these chemicals in fish, including farmed fish, are very low and similar to levels in meats and dairy products.
  • Compared with the health benefits of fish intake, the health risks of these chemical levels are very low and should not influence individual decisions about fish intake. Compared with store-bought fish, locally caught freshwater fish may have higher chemical levels, so local advisories should be consulted.

Overall, the health benefits of eating fish, says JAMA, greatly outweigh the potential risks—especially when guidelines are used to reduce the small chance of being affected by these risks.