What You May Not Know About Fish Toxins
You’ve heard it all before—fish is a great way to make sure you’re getting your omega-3s for beautiful skin and heart health, among other perks. It seems a “cleaner” option then the ‘ol chicken or red meat on the menu.
The only problem with that is…with those omega-3s, you’re getting more toxins than ever these days. It’s the sad truth of our polluted waterways and oceans, and our fish friends act as virtual underwater filters. Mercury and PCBs abound in seafood (in some fish more than others), so you should certainly not pile on the seafood as a daily component of your diet, or fish oil capsules for that matter. The good news is that some fish contain lesser amounts of toxins, so if you are a fish-eater/love you can be more strategic in your choices and fare far better! Also, please read to the end of this blog, and you’ll see tips for those that want to keep fish in their diet, to maximize health and safety.
Fish with the Highest and Lowest Mercury Content
Not all fish are the same in their toxicity levels. The National Resources Defense Council states that the most polluted fish include:
- Mackerel (king, Spanish, and gulf)
- Orange roughy
- Tuna (bigeye, ahi, canned albacore, and yellowfin)
- Chilean sea bass
It’s funny because I went to a sushi restaurant a few days ago with friends (seaweed salad, veggie rolls for me) and forbade my friends from ordering their usual yellowfin sashimi. There was a whitefish on the menu that they switched to instead. Whew!
Some of the popular seafood picks, including mahi-mahi, lobster, halibut, Alaskan cod, black and striped bass, and Atlantic and Pacific halibut, are considered “moderately” contaminated with mercury, and the NRDC recommends eating them no more than six times per month. Isn’t “moderately contaminated” a funny term? It’s like saying, well, it’s okay to just eat a teeny bit of rat poison- but not too much!
Some of the fish that have been shown to be lower in heavy metals and toxins include (this doesn’t mean heavy-metal free, but at least lower lowers displayed in some research):
- Wild Alaskan salmon
- Trout (freshwater)
- Domestic crabs
Mercury comes with a whole lot of nasty side effects if you get too much as an adult, a mom-to-be, or a child. Since you can’t detect it on your own by smell or taste, it’s important to educate yourself on the types of fish it’s safest to eat and the ones you should avoid at all costs.
Mercury is a neurotoxin. The NRDC lists memory loss, blood pressure regulation, numbness in the toes and fingers, heart disease, vision loss, and tremors as effects mercury can have on adults. For pregnant women, the exposure could cause mental retardation, cerebral palsy, deafness, or blindness in the child. A study found lowered IQ levels and issues with language, attention, memory, motor skills, and visuospatial functioning in children whose mothers ate fish high in mercury during pregnancy. There are safer ways to get omega-3s and protein for moms-to-be (and everyone else, too!), and they don’t even involve supplements!
In children, there can be all kinds of delays in their development when exposure to mercury occurs. They may not walk or talk as early as they should, and their learning abilities could be impaired when exposed to even small amounts. Because children’s brains develop so quickly and their bodies are growing and learning so much in the first six years of life, they are especially susceptible to the effects of mercury.
It’s Not Just Mercury. There’s Other Nasty Stuff in Fish, Too.
A lot of what we hear in regard to the dangers of fish revolves around the presence of mercury in their fat and flesh. However, there are also PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and viruses to think about. PCBs are chemicals that were released into the air, water, and soil by industries from the 1920s until they were banned in 1979. Though they can be broken down in the environment (especially in sunlight, though it still isn’t easy) and they haven’t been used in decades, they’re still around and able to cause problems because they’re still hanging around in the fish we eat. The big fish eat the little fish that have PCBs in them, then the even bigger fish eat those, and the PCBs just accumulate over time, working their way up the food chain.
A study involving people from the Great Lakes basin area, where fish consumption is higher than average, found that those men and women had heightened risks of cancer, immune and endocrine system troubles, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, diabetes, and liver disease after the reproductive years (the study did not find conclusive evidence that PCBs caused reproductive issues, but said that reproductive function “might” be disrupted and would require further study).
The Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment of California offers a few tips for making fish safer to eat (though you’re still not going to be able to remove all the toxins), like:
- Trim the fat.
- Remove the skin.
- Clean and gut the fish before cooking it.
- Don’t eat the liver of the fish or the soft green parts of crabs and lobsters.
(See more tips from me, below).
As with the mercury, the bigger, fattier fish are the ones to watch out for when you’re worried about PCBs. The Environmental Defense Fund has a chart that shows how often it’s safe to eat certain types of fish for men, women, older children, and younger children, and states whether the concern is mercury, PCBs, or both.
Viruses and Government Cover-Ups
Viruses are another issue, and they’re generally a man-made one. The film, Salmon Confidential, discusses the effects that salmon farms may have had on wild salmon along the Fraser River in British Columbia. The wild salmon passing through the areas where salmon are farmed are potentially picking up deadly (to them) diseases—infectious salmon anemia (ISA), salmon alphavirus (which damages the salmon’s pancreas), and piscene reovirus, which weakens the heart (turns it to mush, actually), making it impossible for these once powerful fish to swim upstream.
Some of the farmed salmon carry disease all the way to the store, based on the samples biologist Alex Morton from British Columbia gathered—and they’re being sold as food in the supermarket when they have these diseases. Morton sent a salmon sample in for testing, straight from the supermarket, and it came back positive for piscene reovirus. I know- this is an absolute outrage!! I know we would all like to believe that what we buy in the supermarket is always safe, but it is sadly, not so.
Instead of addressing the problem as if it were a real threat and allowing scientists to investigate, the Canadian government muzzled anyone who wanted to say the farmed salmon were infected and the cause for the decline in wild salmon. While studying the decline of wild salmon, scientist Kristi Miller’s research led her to the salmon farms. She was forbidden to test the farmed salmon (or speak out at all about it—no interviews, no meetings, nothing). The government allows farms to keep disease information confidential from the public and scientists. (What the heck is up with that??!!)
The unwillingness to do anything but cover up the issue puts the ecosystem—and um, our health—at risk, all for the sake of not interrupting trade (and cash flow). So far, the viruses are reportedly not affecting humans, but who knows what the future could reveal? What happens when a virus has been kept alive at cold temperatures on sushi and then you consume it?
If you want to eat salmon, look for the redder fish without visible white fat stripes. The paler, fattier fish are the farm-raised ones, and they’re the most likely to have the infections. (This isn’t a surefire test as some salmon is dyed to look darker, but it is at least one thing to look for).
Other Omega-3 Sources
Obviously, you still need omega-3s in your diet, even when you’re consciously limiting your intake of fish. You can get omega-3s, however, from Beauty Food sources, like flaxseeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds. Just one or two tablespoons a day will give you what you need for healthy brain and nerve function. I’d like to point out that dark leafy green vegetables contain omega 3 fats as well- especially when ingested in large amounts, such as blended into a GGS.
Walnuts are another option, since their omega-3 content is higher than any other type of nut. Try them used in place of ground beef in the raw taco salad recipe.
If you love Brussels sprouts (as I do), a cup and a half of them will meet your daily omega-3 requirement. Are you shocked? Leafy green vegetables are full of happy surprises!
But What If You Don’t Want to Give Up Fish?
I know. You’ve given up dairy and burgers and now…fish? Heck no! I have to eat something in restaurants, you may be somewhat annoyingly muttering to yourself. I hear it all the time from my clients, and I understand the social and familial complications that can be involved (though it’s possible to eat out without animal foods all the time. In the Glowing Lean System I take you through the best way to order out of many restaurants- from Mexican to American, etc. I do it all the time). If you truly love eating fish and don’t want to give it up, there are a few things you can do to lower your exposure to the toxins.
When you do eat fish, make sure it’s baked or broiled so the fat (which contains most of the toxins) is drained away. Don’t choose pan-seared or fried because those methods won’t remove the fat. Be selective in the type of fish you eat (see the list above!), but still try not to eat it more than twice per week.
Try to avoid sushi as much as possible. In a perfect, toxin-free (and virus-free) world, sushi and sashimi would be some of the healthiest ways to eat fish. But since you’re eating it raw, all of the nasty stuff that goes along with fish these days is still present. If sushi’s your favorite food and you don’t want to give it up, try trading in your tuna and salmon, some of the most common fish used in sushi, for others from the list that are less contaminated.
You don’t have to give up anything you don’t want to; just be aware of the concerns so you can make educated decisions on the types of fish you consume and how often you eat it. Try to supplement your omega-3 fatty acid consumption with some of the options I listed above, and have fish only a few times a month or a couple of times per week.
If you are a fish-eater, eat lots of cleansing herbs, especially cilantro, which can help chelate (bind to and escort out) heavy metals out of your body. Throw some in your GGS!