What would I want for my final meal?

In Thunder Bay, Ontario, recently, while giving a talk, I suddenly found my mouth watering.

I mentioned that I was just 150 miles away from Quetico Park where I had spent two months alone years ago doing fish research. I said that the highest priced meal in the world could not compete with a yellow pickerel cooked over a camp fire.

Which now brings me to the health benefits of eating fish today.

We are often told we should eat fish as they’re a good choice for lean protein. People in Iceland eat a whopping 220 lbs. of fish a year. The average North American eats a paltry 16 lbs. annually, including fish sticks!

This difference is in part due to the current worry about potential dangers. For instance, mercury accumulates in the lean tissue of some fish and it can cross the placental barrier during pregnancy. So too much mercury can cause fetal brain damage. In adults, excessive amounts can injure the heart.

Dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are found in the fatty tissue of fish and animal examination shows they can cause cancer. Researchers are concerned that these agents may be carcinogenic in humans and also trigger neurological problems.

But there are still many health benefits from eating fish. Two major research groups, the Harvard School of Public Health and the Institute of Medicine (IOM) analyzed the pros and cons of fish in the diet.

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. And aboriginals who have a high dietary intake of fish have less heart disease.

Another study reported in Archives of Ophthalmology showed that women who ate fish three times a week had a 42% lower risk of age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in older people.

A study at the University of Pittsburgh should also prompt more people to visit fish counters. MRI scans of the brains of those eating broiled or baked fish, but not fried, had greater volumes of gray matter in the brain’s frontal and temporal lobes. This matter is responsible for memory and learning. These are the areas severely affected in Alzheimer’s disease.

So although there is some contamination from eating fish, the benefit far outweighs the small risk. A healthy diet should include two three-ounce servings of fish a week.

One cautionary note for pregnant and nursing mothers is that 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 decline mackerel, shark, swordfish and tilefish also known as golden bass.

But smaller fish contain large amounts of the fatty acid DHA 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 eaten more than any other type of seafood by North Americans has only 250 mg., catfish 150mg. and lobster 71 mg.

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. But if you suffer 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 fish. We’re continuing to pollute their environment and fish stocks are falling.

Do I have a last request before I leave this planet? Yes, it’s a heaven with lots of lakes loaded with yellow pickerel. I hope the Almighty is listening.

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