Is Fish Safe to Eat?
By Allan R. Handysides and Peter N. Landless
I read recently that pregnant women have now been advised to eat fish. I had thought that the mercury content of fish made it dangerous to eat. Do you think fish should now be part of a health-conscious person’s diet?
Your question is one that is very topical and of great interest to vegetarians. As you no doubt know, many “vegetarians” include fish as part of their diet. Fish was eaten by Ellen White instead of “flesh meat,” and she considered it a better food than flesh of animals. She cautioned about fish from polluted rivers, and that is very much the situation today where fish from the inland and coastal waters of many countries are polluted with contaminants such as mercury, pesticides, and dioxins. The mercury content of fish was what prompted the withdrawal of fish from the diet of pregnant women. The reversal of this recommendation was based on factors other than the mercury content, which has not changed.
A person’s cell walls require Omega-3 fatty acids for their proper function, and two very important types are the eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and the docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Fish oil is rich in these two important fatty acids, and concerns for the development of the unborn baby’s brain led to the reversal of the advice to pregnant mothers. Underlying this recommendation is a belief that Omega-3 fatty acids derived from plant sources are not easily metabolized to the EPA and DHA varieties of Omega-3 fatty acids.
At the Fifth International Congress on Vegetarian Nutrition, Dr. Alexander Leaf, Jackson Professor of Clinical Medicine, Emeritus, at Harvard University, espoused this belief. His position was assailed by Dr. Iqwal Mangat of the University of Toronto and, perhaps most tellingly, by information from the recent Adventist Health Study. This study showed that in fat biopsies taken from vegetarians, the content of DHA was very adequate. This means whatever theories of fat metabolism may be raised, the reality is that vegetarians are able to obtain sufficient DHA. This means we do not see a need at this time to recommend fish be added to the vegetarian’s diet.
In the same vein, we also feel a well-balanced and ample vegetarian diet is quite adequate for the pregnant mother and her child.
Lest we fail to be fair to those vegetarians who do consume fish, it is appropriate to recognize there are benefits to fish-eating. These include a decreased risk of heart attack mortality, probably related to the antiarrhythmic effect of fish oils, and apart from the contaminants fish does not have health concerns. Fish taken from unpolluted waters, such as deep oceans, do not have the same level of problems we see with fish that are farmed or from coastal waters.
In several nations and island populations, fish is a very important part of the diet. Our basis for vegetarianism is the quest for optimal health. Because of geographic differences in availability of foodstuffs, we are loath to recommend a rigid diet, and would caution a careful and well-planned transition from one’s usual diet to a vegetarian diet. The biblical record of Jesus eating and serving fish in His glorified state surely allays any questions as to the morality of eating fish. Ellen White’s preference for fish over flesh meat also suggests that any problem with fish relates to its contamination. For those with ample choice and quantities of foods available to them, particularly nuts and seeds, we see no reason for them to include fish in their diet. Conversely, we know of no health hazard for the eating of unpolluted fish.
Allan R. Handysides, M.B., Ch.B., FRCPC, FRCSC, FACOG,
is director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department.
Peter N. Landless, M.B., B.Ch., M.Med., F.C.P.(SA), F.A.C.C.,
is ICPA executive director and associate director of Health Ministries.