If your kids, like most, fall short on fish intake, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) want to change that. In an effort to update joint fish* consumption recommendations issued in 2004, the FDA and EPA just released draft updated advice for pregnant women, women who might become pregnant, women who breastfeed and young children.
Fish provides a vital source of nutrients needed by pregnant and breastfeeding women and children. Besides being a source of high quality protein, many types of fish—especially cold-water, oily fish, like salmon—are key food sources of two potent omega-3 fatty acids: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These essential polyunsaturated fatty acids (they're essential because the body can't make them and they need to be derived from the diet) are integral components of cell membranes and support critical functions in the brain, blood vessels and immune system. EPA creates compounds that help cells divide and grow and also plays a role in blood clotting, muscle activity and digestion, and DHA is critical for brain function. Although our bodies can make a little bit of EPA and DHA from plant foods, fish is a more reliable source of these vital nutrients. Studies also suggest that fish benefits heart health, may protect against depression and may even benefit skin health.
Depending on the type you choose, fish can also be a good or excellent source of nutrients including vitamin B12, niacin, selenium and phosphorus. Some are also excellent sources of vitamin D.
Although the draft recommendations encourage adults to consume 8 to 12 ounces weekly of a variety of fish that are lower in mercury (more on that below), it recommends that children consume amounts consistent with current Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Based on United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Patterns, children ages 2 to 8 years who consume between 1,000 and 1,400 calories should aim for about 3 to 6 ounces of fish weekly. Older children who consume 1,600 or more calories (eg boys aged 10 and older, and girls aged 11 and older) can aim for at least 8 ounces of fish weekly. The draft recommendations also recommend feeding fish to children only after 6 months of age and to monitor for signs of an allergic reaction before feeding a second time since fish—especially shellfish—is recognized as a major allergen.
When it comes to fish options, the draft recommendations encourage low mercury fish options. While mercury, a heavy metal, occurs naturally in the environment, it also collects in the waters in which fish swim. There it becomes methylmercury, a neurotoxin. When fish feed, they absorb varying amounts of methylmercury, and nearly all fish contains at least traces of the heavy metal. Being exposed to too much methylmercury can harm the brain and nervous system, which is why it's vital for women of childbearing age and children especially to make more mindful fish choices. The draft recommendations suggest avoiding higher mercury fish including tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, shark, swordfish and king mackerel. They also recommend emphazsizing lower mercury fish options including salmon, shrimp, pollock, tuna (light canned), tilapia, catfish, and cod and limiting intake of white (albacore) tuna to 6 ounces a week since it contains an estimated three times the mercury found in light tuna.
If you're still concerned about methylmercury or other harmful pollutants in fish, you can remove parts of the fish in which such substances tend to accumulate before cooking; these include the skin, belly fat, and internal organs.
To incorporate more fish in kids' diets, you can serve it in small portions alongside or mixed with rice and vegetables, in fajitas or quesadillas, or bake it with breadcrumbs made from flaky whole grain cereal. Or make mini fish sticks! And if your kids won't eat fish because they don't like it, or because they follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, be sure to consult with a registered dietitian nutritionist to make sure they are meeting their basic nutrient needs.
Although it's unclear when final FDA/EPA fish intake recommendations will be made, it's prudent to follow the updated draft guidance—especially if your kids don't eat much or any fish. And if you want to voice your opinion or make a comment about the draft advice, you can do so starting on June 11, 2014.
*includes fish and shellfish.
Image of grilled fish with BBQ vegetables via shutterstock.
Do you and your kids eat fish? If not, what's stopping you? And if you do, what's your favorite way to eat/prepare it?