What would I order for my final meal on this planet? It would be a freshly caught yellow pickerel cooked over a roaring camp fire. Years ago I spent one magnificent summer doing fish research in northern Ontario. Since then no fancy white-tablecloth restaurant has offered me a better fish meal. Besides, fish were free of contamination in those long-ago days.
So what should we know about the health benefits of eating fish today?
We're often told we should eat fish as they're a great source of protein. But we're also warned of potential dangers. For instance, mercury accumulates in the lean tissue of some fish and it can cross the placental barrier, so large doses can cause fetal brain damage. In adults excessive amounts of mercury can injure the heart.
But, looking at the overall picture, there are still many health benefits from eating fish. In 2006 two major research groups, the Harvard School of Public Health and the Institute of Medicine (IOM) analyzed the pros and cons of eating fish.
Harvard researchers found adequate evidence that eicosapentaenoic (EPA) and docosahexaenoic (DHA), two omega-3 fatty acids in fish, were important for good vision, the immune response, normal skin physiology and for fetal and infant development. Heart disease is low in Eskimos who have a high dietary intake of fish.
Authorities at IOM reported there was another explanation for health benefits. They showed those who eat fish also consume less meat so their intake of harmful saturated fats is less.
In spite of these different conclusions, both studies agreed that, although there was some contamination from eating fish it was worth the risk. And that a healthy diet should include two three-ounce servings of fish a week.
However, one cautionary note for pregnant and nursing mothers prevailed. Mercury is more likely to be present in the flesh of large long-living fish that prey on smaller short-living ones. So mothers should say no to mackerel, king shark, swordfish and tilefish also known as golden bass.
But smaller fish contain large amounts of the fatty acid DHA that is essential for fetal development. Pregnant women should therefore eat 12 ounces of other types of fish and shellfish each week.
The rest of us should know that not all fish are created equal.
For instance, a three-ounce serving of farmed salmon contains over 2,000 milligrams (mg) of omega-3 fats. But the same amount of shrimp that North Americans eat more than any other type of seafood has only 250 mg, catfish 150 mg and lobster 71 mg.
TAKE YOUR PICK
Arctic char provide more vitamin D than any other fish, with scallops a close second. Oysters are the highest in vitamin B12 and iron. You can't beat tuna for its high potassium content and for calcium, no fish can match crawfish. And if you're looking for fish with high amounts of magnesium, which protects against fatal cardiac arrhythmias, order tuna or crawfish.
If you're suffering from "cholesterolphobia" don't order crawfish, scallops or Arctic char.
Looking at the total picture, eating fish still provides a healthy meal.
But although fish is good for us, humans have not been so kind to the fish. We've not only polluted their environment, but we're eating more of them so fish stocks are dwindling.
This has me worried, as I keep thinking of that camp fire and the freshly caught yellow pickerel. And unlike some of my friends, I'm not so sure of where I'm going when I leave this planet. Moreover, if there is a heaven somewhere there's no guarantee it has beautiful lakes loaded with yellow pickerel.
So this summer to ease my intense depression one of my sons has agreed to fly with me to Fort Frances in northern Ontario, then on to Quetico Park where I spent those weeks alone one summer, examining and eating pickerel.
I want to hedge my bets, just in case.
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