ITASCA, IL – Seafood is packed with high-quality protein and other nutrients children need for healthy development. Yet fish and shellfish make up a relatively small part of most children’s diets in the United States, compared to other sources of animal protein such as red meat and chicken. One reason is concerns about mercury that fish can absorb from polluted water.
A new technical report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in the June 2019 Pediatrics, “Fish, Shellfish, and Children’s Health: An Assessment of Benefits, Risks, and Sustainability” (online May 20), outlines evidence on the health advantages of eating fish while helping pediatricians point parents to the safest sources.
In addition to being protein dense with no saturated fat or sugar, many types of fish are high in vitamin D and calcium, and some are a rich source of long chain omega-3 fatty acids used by the body to build nerve cells in the brain and eyes. More research is needed, according to the AAP, but studies suggest seafood consumption may improve infant neurodevelopment and decrease cardiovascular disease risk. A growing body of research show that introducing fish early in a child’s diet may even help prevent allergic disease such as asthma and eczema.
“For families who eat meat, fish should be a welcome part of a child’s diet,” said the report’s lead author Aaron Bernstein, MD, MPH, FAAP, an executive committee member of the AAP Council on Environmental Health.
“We’re encouraging pediatricians to ask families about fish and shellfish consumption--since most children don’t eat much beyond the occasional fish sticks--and advise them on the healthiest choices.”
Seafood consumption by U.S. children has declined every year since 2007. The main reason many families avoid feeding their children fish, and women avoid it during pregnancy, is methylmercury pollution. Eating contaminated fish can have harmful effects on a child's developing nervous system.
Mercury is a naturally occurring metal that’s released into the air primarily by burning coal and some types of mining. When it settles into water, bacteria convert mercury into a more dangerous form, methylmercury. Methylmercury can build up in fish--especially those that eat other fish and live longer. These tend to be larger ocean species such as shark, swordfish, and orange roughy, but freshwater fish also can contain mercury, depending on where it is caught.
However, the AAP says exposure to mercury in fish can be minimized or avoided, based on U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency
guidance. The agencies recommend children and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding eat 1-2 weekly servings of a variety of fish among the
“best” and “good” choices identified. Families who eat freshwater fish they catch locally should check
advisories and limit servings to once a week if the body of water where they fish is not monitored.
The AAP also recommends that the sustainability of different types of fish and shellfish be factored into seafood choices. Some of the world’s fishing grounds are being over-harvested. In certain regions, especially for shrimp farming, child labor and environmentally damaging practices are used. In general, the best choices for sustainably caught or raised fish and shellfish most often come from U.S. fisheries, according the AAP.
Dr. Bernstein said learning about different types of fish and shellfish, and adding more of it to children’s diets, should be a goal of every family.
“For most types of seafood, the nutritional benefits far outweigh the risks,” he said.
Updated information on healthy fish choices for kids will be available on AAP’s website for parents,
HealthyChildren.org, at 12:01 a.m. ET May 20.
The American Academy of Pediatrics is an organization of 67,000 primary care pediatricians, pediatric medical subspecialists and pediatric surgical specialists dedicated to the health, safety and well-being of infants, children, adolescents and young adults. For more information, visit www.aap.org and follow us on Twitter @AmerAcadPeds