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Federal officials for the first time are recommending that young children and pregnant or breastfeeding women eat a minimum of two to three servings a week of fish that is low in mercury, in order to give them important health benefits.

Current guidelines, released a decade ago, focused on limiting the amount of fish consumed by women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, due to concerns about contamination from methylmercury, which can cause brain damage, especially to developing brains, said Elizabeth Southerland of the Environmental Protection Agency, which released the new guidelines along with the Food and Drug Administration.

That advice apparently scared a lot of women into avoiding fish altogether. Research has shown that 21% of pregnant women ate no fish at all in the past month, said Stephen Ostroff, acting chief scientist at the FDA. Even among women who consumed fish, half ate fewer than 2 ounces a week.

But fish contain heart-healthy oils, such as omega-3 fatty acids, says Edward R.B. McCabe, medical director of the March of Dimes Foundation. There's also limited evidence that fish oils may promote a baby's brain development. McCabe praised the agencies' decision to encourage more fish consumption, along with a balanced diet.

"There are so many women who are missing out on the benefits," Southerland says.

So now, instead of telling these women to eat no more than two servings of fish a week, officials advise them to eat at least two servings and up to three servings a week of fish that's low in mercury. Officials continue to advise women to avoid four fish with higher mercury levels: shark; swordfish; king mackerel and tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico. Those four fish make up less than 2% of fish sold in the USA, Ostroff says.

Nine of the 10 most frequently sold fish in the USA are lower in mercury, Ostroff says. The fish used in fish sticks and other commercial products is also usually low in mercury, he said. Fish that are lower in mercury include shrimp, pollock, salmon, canned light tuna, tilapia, catfish and cod, he said.

"The health benefits far outweigh any risk," Ostroff says.

The draft's updated advice did recommend that pregnant or breastfeeding women limit their consumption of white (also called albacore) tuna to 6 ounces a week.

Pregnant women and women who are breastfeeding should avoid albacore, Edward Groth III, a food safety scientist and adviser to the non-profit Mercury Policy Project, said in a statement.

"Given the enormous role tuna plays in U.S. mercury exposure, if women are going to eat more fish and also reduce their mercury exposure, they simply have to strictly limit their tuna consumption," Groth said.

Light tuna accounts for 70% of U.S. canned or pouched tuna consumption, according to the National Fisheries Institute. The other 30% is made up of white, also called albacore, tuna.

Contributing: Elizabeth Weise

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