One fish, two fish, good fish, bad fish.
Parents often wonder if they should feed their children fish. After all, nearly all fish contain trace amounts of methylmercury, an environmental contaminant. In large amounts, all forms of mercury are toxic to nerve cells and can cause vision problems, poor coordination and learning impairments.
When it comes to mercury toxicity, the emphasis is on “large amounts.” The real danger is not consuming enough fish, says Gary J. Myers, MD, pediatric neurologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center. “Fish is the primary source of omega-3 fatty acids.” Children need these specialized fats to build the structure of their brains from the time of conception to about age 20, he explains. Without an ample supply of omega-3 fats, the body incorporates other fatty acids which do not confer the same benefits to the brain and nervous system.
So what makes parents leery of fish? In 2004, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency jointly issued a warning to children, pregnant women and nursing mothers to limit fish to a couple meals weekly and to completely avoid the four fish with the highest levels of mercury: shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish. Limit albacore “white” tuna to just once per week, the report added as it is fifth on the list of high-mercury fish. Confusion spread along with the news. Many people became unnecessarily fearful and shunned all fish including the ever-popular, low-mercury canned light tuna.
The only reported cases of mercury poisoning from eating fish occurred in Japan after massive industrial pollution. There are no reports of mercury poisoning from fish consumption from other areas of the world, says Myers. He has studied the health of children in the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean where fish consumption and mercury exposure are at least 10 times higher than in the U.S. Thousands of measurements suggest the children are very healthy, he adds.
Omega-3 fats aren’t the only nutritional reward. “Fish is a great source of protein that growing bodies need,” says registered dietitian Sarah Krieger, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Fish also provides varying amounts of iron, calcium, zinc and magnesium, she says.
Variety is a dietitian’s mantra, so introduce your kids to a variety of seafood. Here are a few of Krieger’s kid-approved dishes.
- Make a salad of canned fish with pasta, frozen vegetables and light Italian dressing.
- Bake salmon glazed with mustard, honey and reduced-sodium soy sauce.
- Have fun with mock sushi. Fill a Romaine lettuce leaf with cooked fish, brown rice, shredded carrots and gingerroot and a splash of reduced-sodium soy sauce.