The Fish Quandary: Getting Essential Oils without the Heavy Metals
Benefits of Fish
A common dilemma for fish lovers today is finding not just tasty fish that children like, but fish that is safe for children and adults. High levels of toxins in some fish make selection tricky. What fish are OK and what varieties are off limits? And can parents and kids alike get docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid that’s essential to the growth and functioning of the brain, from sources other than fish?
Toxins found in fish—such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), mercury, and pesticides—affect everyone, especially children and pregnant women. “We see kids everyday with cognitive issues because of heavy-metal toxicity,” says Dr. David Perlmutter, a neurologist, author of The Better Brain Book, and medical director of the Perlmutter Health Center, in Naples, Florida.
“Parents should be taking this information seriously about the toxins in fish,” warns Dr. Perlmutter. He explains that children who regularly consume heavy metals from a surplus of tuna or other large fish may exhibit slowness of thought, irritability, hyperactivity, sleeplessness, or even experience seizures.
The advantages of getting the DHA and omega-3 building blocks begin in the womb. Research has shown that pregnant women who consume enough DHA are more likely to have full-term babies, says Jeff Bost, a clinical instructor at the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Neurological Surgery. Additionally, a 2005 study from Harvard University found that pregnant women can boost their babies’ intelligence by eating fish a couple of times a week—but that the type of fish is important, as babies’ intelligence scores drop dramatically if the fish contain high levels of mercury.
Infants who get enough DHA through their mothers’ dietary intake (in the womb and through breastmilk) or through formula supplemented with DHA have better cognitive development and vision, adds Gretchen K. Vannice, a registered dietitian and research coordinator for Nordic Naturals, a California-based company that produces toxin-free fish oil supplements.
Fish to Avoid
DHA and other omega-3 oils are especially good for infants and children, adds Bost. Because they’re incorporated into cell membranes, DHA and Omega-3 fatty acids are important to the rapid cell growth that occurs in children. “In a child’s early growth and development, there’s a lot of cell growth and division. If you don’t have the structure and building blocks to make those cells, there’s a deficiency,” Bost explains. Nutrients from DHA—mainly omega-3 fatty acids—can also help young brains develop and protect against heart disease.
DHA can combat depression as well. For example, research shows that mothers who experience postpartum depression have depleted fatty acids, says Bost, and that depression can be eased if the mother consumes DHA.
Given the advantages of DHA and other omega-3 fatty acids, it’s critical to ensure your family gets enough of them. But that’s not an easy goal to achieve, knowing the potential for fish and fish oil to be contaminated with heavy metals, says Dr. Perlmutter.
To ensure kids and moms-to-be don’t consume contaminants, parents should avoid the following:
- king mackerel
Larger fish have the highest levels of methylmercury because the toxins have more time to accumulate. Parents should also avoid farm-raised fish, which are often trapped in an environment that contains their own waste, says Dr. Perlmutter.
Fish to Enjoy
The FDA reports that the following fish are safe and healthy for consumption:
- canned light tuna
- wild salmon
- canned sardines and herring
It is safe to eat up to 12 ounces (two average meals) a week of a variety of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury. You can also look for non-fish sources of DHA and foods with ALA (alpha linolenic acid) which can be converted into DHA and eicosapentaenoic acid EPA). These foods include certain eggs, products made from marine algae, buffalo and venison, and flaxseed, walnut, and canola oils.
Taking Supplements Instead
Supplements can also provide the necessary omega-3s, but parents should shop carefully. Beware of oil contaminated with heavy metals and oil that’s rancid, says Cheryl Myers, a registered nurse and director of health sciences for Enzymatic Therapy, Inc., a natural medicines company in Green Bay, Wisconsin. “Purchase only omega-3 supplements from companies that have tested their products for contaminants,” adds Myers.
Dr. Stacy Bell, a PhD in nutrition and an innovation scientist for Ideasphere, a nutrition company based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, suggests calling supplement manufacturers to ask whether they’ve tested for contaminants. If they won’t share their analysis, don’t take the supplement. Additionally, Myers says fish oil should not taste fishy (even when burped up), but instead should have a clean taste and odor. Parents should test a supplement to check for bad odors or taste before giving it to their children, Myers says.
While parents try to ensure their children get enough DHA and other omega-3s in their diet, they must also keep an eye on kids’ omega-6 intake, says Vannice, adding that Americans consume too many omega-6 fatty acids in the form of the vegetable (corn) oil that’s in fast foods such as French fries. Omega-6 oils provide health benefits, but not if people consume a much larger amount of omega-6 oils than omega-3s, says Dr. Bell. When omega-6 consumption is high, “the immune system gets too aggressive,” she explains. “Omega-3 oils balance it out.”
“Women and children in the US have the third lowest omega-3 intake in the world. The American population simply does not get enough omega-3s, even though the body needs them,” Vannice says.
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