Already disputed by environmental advocates and contradicted by government warnings, a recent recommendation that pregnant women and young mothers who are breast feeding eat more fish is coming under more skeptical scrutiny.
At issue is how to eat enough omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in high levels in fish and are important for the normal brain development of children -- without consuming too much mercury, a contaminant found in many fish that retards the development of the brain.
The Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency had agreed that women should avoid eating the fish species that tend to accumulate high levels of mercury: swordfish, shark, king mackerel and tilefish. Some environmental groups were more aggressive in their recommendations, given the concerns over mercury's affect on the brain.
But the National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition last week promoted a new view -- that mothers ought to eat 12 ounces of fish a week -- any kind of fish -- to ensure they get enough Omega-3 fatty acids in their diet.
At least one environmental group accused them of bias, because they took money to promote their findings from the fishing industry. And now, USA Today is reporting that some of the 150 members of the coalition are distancing themselves from the recommendation, reflecting a split in the group itself.
The March of Dimes, which advocates for babies, was among the groups that separated from the coalition, standing instead behind earlier recommendations to eat only those fish low in mercury, and to limit consumption to less than 12 ounces a week. Government agencies in the coalition also said they hadn't been consulted. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists supports the original FDA guidelines that recommend limiting fish consumption, particularly of high-mercury species.
Even the National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition stepped away, saying that the recommendations had come from its board, not from the group as a whole.
If you're concerned about what fish to eat and what fish to avoid because of mercury -- particularly if you're thinking of getting pregnant, pregnant or breast feeding, consider the data provided by Oceans Alive, a project of Environmental Defense. It analyzes a number of fish based on both the level of Omega-3 fatty acids and the level of contaminants. Its recommended choices are those that are high in fatty acids but low in contaminants like mercury, pesticides and PCBs. As to whether you should eat fish at all, that's a personal choice to make, based on the conflicting recommendations being promoted.
Here's a list of the fish Oceans Alive says have the most Omega-3s and the least contaminants (and which are sustainably harvested). For the complete list, click here.
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