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New Rules Provide Reminder of Fish Benefits, Risks, Especially for Women

by Jennifer Wider, MD

(Washington, April 4): Retail stores are now required to label fish and shellfish for country of origin and method of production (i.e., wild or farm-raised).  This allows consumers to make more informed purchasing decisions.  However, with some confusion over the benefits and risks of eating fish and the challenges of selecting and preparing fish, consumers need help to understand the many issues.

"The new regulations present an opportunity to remind and educate Americans about the impact a fish's origin and its mode of production has on its nutritional value and health benefits," said Sherry Marts, Ph.D., vice president of scientific affairs for the Society for Women's Health Research, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization.  "We don't want consumers to fear the regulations as another daunting obstacle to understanding the risks and benefits of eating fish."

Fish is a good source of protein and generally has fewer calories, saturated fat and cholesterol per serving than chicken or beef.  Fish, especially fat-rich fish such as salmon, rainbow trout, mackerel and sardines, are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids.  Omega-3 fatty acids are considered essential to human health but cannot be manufactured by the body.  They reduce inflammation, help prevent certain chronic diseases such as heart disease and arthritis, and are important for healthy brain function.  As a result, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that women eat up to 12 ounces per week of fish such as light tuna, shrimp, salmon, and catfish. 

There are risks to eating fish, however, as they acquire toxins from pollutants in lakes, rivers and oceans.  Some species of fish are more susceptible.  The FDA warns women of childbearing age and young children to avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish, which are high in mercury and can harm developing fetuses or young child.  They should also eat no more that six ounces per week of albacore tuna, which tends to have more mercury than canned light tuna. 

The FDA regulates the seafood industry to reduce the amount of potential hazards in food, and researchers agree that the benefits of eating fish outweigh the risks.  For most people, the fish you buy at the store is safe to eat and the amount of mercury consumed by eating fish is not a health concern.
The new country of origin labels on fish should remind consumers to ask questions and think about the potential toxicity of any given fish.  Further, the "mode of production" labeling, which says if the fish is "wild" or "farm-raised," can give insights into its health benefits. 

Farm-raised fish have similar amounts of omega-3 fatty acids as wild fish.  Wild fish, however, tend to have lower levels of toxins and are lower in total fat and calories.  Farm-raised fish is less expensive, more readily available, and still provides significant health benefits. 

Additionally, there are local advisories available for fish that you catch yourself.  Consumers should heed local and national advisories about fish safety.

"As with most dietary options, eating fish requires a balancing act where you must weigh the risks and benefits," Marts said.  "The new labeling should be a reminder of the issues involved.  This is especially important for women, who make the majority of family food decisions.  And while mercury contamination is a legitimate concern for pregnant women, eating fish is beneficial for several areas of health that impact women uniquely."

Research has shown fish to be beneficial for cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis, mood disorders, diabetes and breast cancer, all of which affect women differently or more predominantly than men.  Fat-rich fish are also one of the few good food sources for vitamin D, which is needed for effective calcium absorption as part of a healthy bone regimen.

"Heart disease kills 500,000 American women each year - over 50,000 more women than men - and strikes women, on average, 10 years later than men," Marts said.  "Women are also more likely than men to have a second heart attack within a year of the first one."

Omega-3 fatty acids lower triglycerides, reduce abnormal heart rhythms, reduce blood pressure by small but significant amounts, and improve blood clotting regulation.  They may also boost the effectiveness of statins, which are widely prescribed to lower bad cholesterol levels.

© April 4, 2005 Society for Women's Health Research

The Society for Women's Health Research is the nation's only not-for-profit organization whose sole mission is to improve the health of women through research. Founded in 1990, the Society brought to national attention the need for the appropriate inclusion of women in major medical research studies and the resulting need for more information about conditions affecting women. The Society advocates increased funding for research on women's health, encourages the study of sex differences that may affect the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of disease, and promotes the inclusion of women in medical research studies. Dr. Donnica Moore has been a member of the Society since 1990 and is a past member of its Board of Directors.

Created: 4/4/2005  -  Jennifer Wider, M.D.
Reviewed: 4/4/2005  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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