Doctors’ Confusing Stance Ignores The Benefits of Fish… Sort Of

Ignoring The Benefits of Fish is Malpractice

Processed meat, sugary beverages, candy, and… seafood? One of these things is not like the others.

Doctors Tom Rifai and Mark Liponis were interviewed for Business Insider’s list of “12 Unhealthy Foods that Doctors Avoid.” It appears these doctors didn’t take Nutrition 101 in med school, because they included fish on this list… sort of. Perhaps they don’t know that ignoring the benefits of fish is akin to malpractice.

Do As I Say… Not As I Do?

Ironically though, it’s clear that the foods on Business Insider’s list, including fish, are actually not “avoided” by the doctors:

  • “They’re not saying they never eat the foods on this list…”
  • “… is not something I totally avoid, but I have dramatically cut it down”
  • “… are something I really try to limit”
  • “Rifai said he also limits…”
  • “…I really try to limit it”
  • “But remember: Even doctors indulge every once in a while.”
  • “I probably still end up having one or two slices a month”

Um…do we need Merriam-Webster to remind Business Insider of the definition of “avoid?”

Avoid (verb): to keep away from; to prevent the occurrence or effectiveness of; to refrain from.

Since when did “limit” become synonymous with “avoid?” There’s a demonstrable difference between avoiding being bitten by a rattlesnake… and limiting the number of times you’re bitten by a rattlesnake.

Specific to seafood, Dr. Liponis says he stays away from larger fish such as tuna, swordfish, ahi, and halibut because of their mercury levels and other contaminants like PCBs.

The Science Speaks

It’s clear he hasn’t seen the FDA’s latest peer-reviewed published science about the health effects of eating seafood. The “Net Effects Report” is based on more than 110 studies that look at what happens when pregnant women (a more sensitive sub-population than the general public) eat fish—including both nutritional benefits like omega-3s and concerns over mercury. The report includes the amount of seafood, broken down by species, that a pregnant woman would have to eat each week to experience any adverse effects. Note the following amounts:

  • Halibut – 88 ounces, or 22 meals per week
  • Swordfish – 20 ounces, or 5 meals per week
  • Albacore tuna – 56 ounces per week, or 14 meals per week
  • Light canned tuna – 164 ounces per week, or 41 meals per week

We’re guessing the doctors are not coming close to eating halibut 22 times per week, nor canned tuna 41 times per week. And keep in mind, those limits are for pregnant and breastfeeding women – the FDA and the USDA do not recommend the general public avoid any commercial fish species. In fact, because of the benefits of fish, USDA recommends that Americans eat seafood at least twice per week and choose seafood instead of other protein options, such as red meat, a few times per week in order to meet this seafood recommendation.

Avoid Vegetables?

When it comes to PCBs – also an apparent concern of Dr. Liponis –  independent, peer-reviewed research from Harvard University, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, reports seafood broadly makes up only 9% of the PCBs in the average American diet, while products like vegetables make up 20%. Dr. Liponis is far from suggesting consumers avoid (aka limit?) vegetables in this article, which is curious since they contribute more than double the amount of PCBs to the diet than seafood.

Not An Inconsequential Error

It’s disappointing to see practicing physicians discourage readers from eating seafood. This isn’t an inconsequential error. Unnecessarily scaring consumers away from the benefits of fish contributes to an ongoing public health crisis that contributes to 84,000 preventable deaths each year according to Harvard University research. Reputable health organizations like the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association are encouraging Americans to eat fish at least twice per week.

Bottom line: The benefits of fish are clear. Seafood should be incorporated, not avoided.