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What You Need to Know about Fish in the Family Diet
It’s important to include fish and seafood in your child’s diet, but it’s becoming difficult to know what’s safe, what they should eat sparingly and what they should avoid. Fish and seafood contain healthy omega-3 fatty acids, they’re low fat and they’re excellent sources of protein.

So, what’s a parent to do?

An understanding of the concerns regarding fish should make it easier for you to choose appropriately for your family.

The Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency have issued the following guidelines for women who may become pregnant, are already pregnant or are nursing, and for families with small children.
  • Do not eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish, which all have high mercury levels.
  • You can eat up to 12 ounces a week (about two meals) of fish that is lower in mercury, such as shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollack and catfish.
  • Canned albacore tuna (white tuna) has more mercury than canned light tuna. You may eat 6 ounces of albacore tuna per week as part of your overall fish intake of 12 ounces.
Mercury poses a hazard because it accumulates in the body and can cause brain damage in babies and young children. Mercury also transfers easily through breast milk. Following the above guidelines minimizes your exposure to mercury contamination but still offers the benefits of eating fish and seafood. Any Great Lakes fish should be avoided as well.

Farmed vs. “Wild”
Farmed fish are raised in pens in the ocean or in ponds built for this purpose. Farming fish allows for increased availability at a lower cost and protects the environment from over-fishing, which depletes entire fish populations.

However, there is a cost to farmed fish—they are more prone to disease and are therefore treated with antibiotics. This also occurs with farmed animal meats, by the way. Farmed fish eat specially formulated feeds, which may include colorings to make them look more like their “wild” counterparts. There are claims that farmed fish have fewer omega-3 fatty acids because they’re unable to eat their natural diet, but they still contain enough for normal growth and development. “Ocean-raised” fish are not wild—despite the name, they’re also farmed.

“Wild” fish are just that. They live freely in lakes, streams and oceans and eat their food from those sources. The most commonly known wild fish is Alaskan salmon. Unfortunately, wild fish species are being over-fished and cannot replace their populations as quickly as they’re being removed

Wherever you buy seafood, whether fish market or grocery store, it should never smell fishy. Fresh fish should be displayed on a thick bed of ice, and frozen fish should look good and not be covered with ice crystals or frost. Live lobster should be moving and clams should close when tapped. Shrimp is usually frozen for shipping and thawed at the market. Do not refreeze shrimp.

When you buy frozen fish, shake the container. Frozen fish is flash-frozen on the boat after it is caught and should move freely in the package. If the fish or seafood is clumped together, this means it has thawed and was refrozen. Because of seafood’s delicate nature, you should never buy a package in this condition. You don’t know how long it was left sitting out.

If you can’t use fresh fish within two days, freeze it. If you really want to be sure you’re getting what you paid for, purchase filets instead of pre-breaded or pre-battered fish. “Convenience” seafood, such as fish sticks and fish patties, can often be a combination of fishes.

Preparing fish and seafood
As with raw meat, use separate cutting boards for your fish.

Fish is best when baked, broiled or grilled. It’s considered to be fully cooked when the flesh flakes easily with a fork. Shrimp and scallops stir-fry well with cooking spray or a bit of olive oil. They’re ready when they become opaque; broiling can often dry them out.

The types of fish with the lowest mercury content—therefore considered to be safest to eat—are farmed catfish, tilapia, striped bass and trout, as well as sardines, crab, crawfish and wild Alaskan salmon. Cod, flounder, mahi-mahi, farmed oysters, Pacific salmon and sole are moderately safe to eat.

Great Lakes fish are never recommended for young families and women of childbearing age because of pollutants. In addition to mercury, PCBs are also an issue with Great Lakes fish. If these fish are to be consumed, they should be caught from the deepest part of the lake, and only young, smaller fish should be eaten. Large fish may be older and have absorbed more contaminants.

Sushi and specialty seafood
Raw seafood is not recommended for pregnant and nursing women, young children, anyone with a compromised immune system or anyone being treated for stomach acid problems. However, not all sushi is raw, so you can eat sushi that contains cooked seafood, such as a California roll. Raw clams and oysters should also be avoided.

Smoked fish, including refrigerated lox, kippers and seafood jerky should be avoided by pregnant women, older adults and those with weakened immunity. These foods can carry listeria, a bacteria that can make you very ill or cause serious complications in pregnancy.

Knowing about the potential contaminants in fish, many people wonder why they should even consider eating it. But remember, there’s a risk of contamination in everything we eat due to fertilizers, storage, shipping and handling methods, and even our own methods of preparation. Thorough cooking, clean work surfaces and good personal hygiene keep us safe. Plus, when it comes to fish and seafood, nothing packs a better low-fat, high-protein punch.

Susan M. Leisner RD, IBCLC, RLC Nutritionist & Lactation Consultant