In the age of mass media fueled by scary stories, it’s no surprise that environmental activists have been able to turn minuscule levels of mercury in fish into horrifying anti-seafood hysteria. But what about all the health benefits of eating fish? Yesterday on Washington, DC public radio’s The Kojo Nnamdi Show, Cornell University nutrition professor Thomas Brenna sat down with National Institutes of Health doctor Joseph Hibbeln and dietitian Evelyn Tribole to discuss how omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish) help boost brain development. The panel unanimously agreed that omega-3s are immensely beneficial, and they explored the idea that we’re not eating enough fish. (You can listen to the whole show here.)
You may recall that Dr. Brenna published an open letter to the Food and Drug Administration in May, asking the agency to hurry up and finish its long-awaited “Draft Risk & Benefit Assessment.” This FDA analysis is looking to see if the most current science might contradict a 2004 advisory from the EPA about how much fish pregnant women and small children should eat.
Dr. Brenna noted that the EPA’s risk assessment is incomplete because it only focuses on… well, risk:
The [fish consumption] guidelines are currently based upon a 2004 advisory from the EPA that really focused upon potential hazards from the consumption of mercury in fish, and did not focus upon the benefits of eating fish … If one looks at only risk, we can miss the greater point. And the data indicate that consuming more fish is better in pregnancy, and probably lactating too, for the development of baby as well as the psychiatric health of mom.
Dr. Hibbeln reinforced this with the boldest conclusion from his landmark 2007 study, that the current government advisory actually does harm by discouraging women from eating more fish:
We found consistently that when women ate more than they were supposed to, more than advised, their children had higher IQs at age 8, their children had better social skills and peer development at age 8, and—regrettably, because the advisory had not calculated in the benefits of seafood—that the advisory was actually doing the harm that it had intended to prevent doing. That risk is that it increases the risk of low IQ among kids because the advisory encourages a deficiency.
Eating fish can improve brain performance across the board, from boosting IQ to fighting depression. Dr. Hibbeln noted that “in countries where people eat little seafood, they have nearly 50-fold the risk of major depression and 30-fold the risk of homicide deaths than in countries that eat a great deal of seafood.” This is an association that he predicts will hold up under more scientific scrutiny.
Dr. Brenna’s open letter to the FDA has now attracted more than 120 signatories, including a long list of respected PhDs and medical doctors. Here’s hoping that list gets longer as new science indicates that we should be eating more fish, not less. (And that the FDA does its job.)