This past June, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) encouraged Americans to eat more fish. They pointed out that fish has lots of health benefits; not only is it a great source of protein, it's a great source of other nutrients, including some that can help developing brains. That's why they particularly want pregnant women and children to heed the advice.
But there's another really important reason to feed your children fish, as my colleague Dr. Ari Bernstein told the FDA last week: It may help prevent allergies.
The brain stuff is enough in and of itself; another colleague of mine, Dr. Emily Oken, studied 25,000 children and found that those whose mothers ate more seafood during pregnancy did better on developmental tasks than those who ate less. Given that brains are still rapidly developing when children are small, giving seafood to babies and toddlers is a good idea.
But the allergy stuff is exciting. New research shows that eating fish in infancy (especially before 9 months) can decrease the risk of asthma, eczema, hay fever and food allergies. A study done in Sweden of 4000 infants found a 25 percent decrease in risk--and that decrease was still there when the children were 12 years old. This was with just having two fish meals a month!
About 10 percent of children currently have asthma, 17 percent have hay fever, 5 percent have food allergies and 17 percent have skin allergies. Anything we can do to cut the risk is wonderful--especially when doing it is healthy for other reasons, too.
Now, there is a good reason why people have been wary of fish: Toxins, such as mercury, PCB's and dioxins have not just polluted our environment (our fault) but our food, too. The risks of these toxins are real--but as Dr. Bernstein and others point out, that doesn't mean that you shouldn't eat fish.
It means that you should eat it in reasonable quantities. The FDA suggests 8-12 ounces a week, which is about 2-3 servings--and children should have 2-3 kid-sized portions a week.
It also means that you should choose species that are lower in mercury, like salmon, pollock, tunafish (light canned), tilapia (my family loves tilapia!), catfish or cod. The four you should avoid are: tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, shark, swordfish and king mackerel.
In his testimony to the FDA, Dr. Bernstein pointed out another problem: fish stocks worldwide are depleted because of the way we've been doing things. If we really want people to eat more fish, we are going to need to find better and more sustainable ways of providing seafood--which is no small challenge.
So give it a try. Pick up some tilapia, try out some recipes (my family likes fish tacos)--and while you are enjoying it, break some up in little pieces for Baby. You'll be encouraging her to try out new foods, which is a great life habit, and quite possibly making her smarter and healthier too.
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