Thursday, 23 September 2021

T To Your Health

Eat Quiet Fish

“Eat that fish. It’s brain food!” – School Lunch Cook, circa 1966

When I was growing up, Friday was fish day in the free school hot lunch program, for which I qualified due to my dad’s being an underpaid Baptist minister in our little Vermont town.

Every Friday, we got some sort of fish – fish sticks, fish cakes, cod, flounder, scrod, ocean perch, sea bass, or whatever the government source of surplus food had to unload that month. Strange, we never got gefilte fish.


Some of the kids seemed content to eat what was served on Fridays, perhaps because their moms had told them the same thing as my mom told me – fish is brain food. As for me, I ate my fish, and spinach, broccoli, carrots, beets, or even things of unknown origin and unknowable identity – whatever ended up on my plate day by day (with the exception of Brussels sprouts). Looking back now, I wonder that none of us asked for double-blind, placebo controlled scientific evidence to prove that eating fish was any better for our brains than a PB&J sandwich on white bread (sometimes with marshmallow worked in), or burger and fries, with onion rings and a big Coke.

All jesting aside, I’m glad my mom and the school lunch cook made us eat our fish, because now there is a mountain of gold standard scientific evidence that eating fish can enhance brain health. What my mom and the school cook didn’t know, however, was that some fish can retain heavy metals, such as mercury, which are toxic to the brain. In general, the higher up the food chain the fish, the more likely it is to be contaminated by mercury, since the metal accumulates over time.

This was brought home in the recent past for my doctor-friend Jim when he was practicing in Hawaii, and became an avid fan of seared tuna. After about six months of feasting on this new discovery he found that his blood mercury levels were four times normal! By switching to safer amounts and smaller fish his mercury levels returned to the normal range in just a few months and he could continue to reap all the benefits of eating fish.

Feeding your brain well may involve learning to like fish, with wild caught oily cold water fish being superior because of their ability to deliver Omega-3 fatty acids, which the human body needs but cannot produce on its own. Omega-3s are important throughout life, helping to maintain brain function, and may have a significant role in protecting your brain from aging. Omega-3s can be obtained from a variety of plant sources, but the most common source is fish, including wild salmon, high mountain trout, mackerel, herring, sardines, and anchovies. If you simply don’t care for fish, but want some of the benefits, a variety of fish oils can be purchased locally or via the Internet – but be sure that whatever you ingest is certified free of all toxins. While fish oils do not provide the protein that actually eating fish provides, this option is still healthier than ignoring your body’s needs for Omega-3s and Vitamin D.

Some doctors recommend eating a half-pound of fish every week,
(2) this despite the relatively disturbing 2009 report issued by the US Government which showed that fish in ALL of the nearly 300 streams sampled over a seven year period contained mercury to some degree, although only about 25 percent had mercury levels exceeding what the EPA considers safe for people consuming average amounts of fish. “Mercury consumed by eating fish can damage the nervous system and cause learning disabilities in developing fetuses and young children,” the report said. “The main source of mercury to most of the streams tested, according to the researchers, is emissions from coal-fired power plants. The mercury released from smokestacks here and abroad rains down into waterways, where natural processes convert it into methylmercury — a form that allows the toxin to wind its way up the food chain into fish.” The report added, “Some of the highest levels [of mercury] in fish were detected in the remote blackwater streams along the coasts of the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida and Louisiana, where bacteria in surrounding forests and wetlands help in the conversion.” (3)

Some fish and shellfish are contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs. PCBs are man-made pollutants that, although they are no longer manufactured in the US, have gotten into the environment, concentrating in higher levels in the food chain. PCBs and other contaminants tend to accrue in the fat of fish just underneath the skin. Other contaminants include dioxins and pesticides. If you catch your own fish to eat you should check on your local fish consumption advisory at the EPA website.

In Pennsylvania, for example, the consumption advisory for sport fish is to not eat more than one meal of fish a week. This does not mean that you should never eat the fish you catch. It means that you should limit how many of those fish you eat. Fish that tend to have higher levels of mercury include shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish. (4) Fish typically low in mercury include shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, and catfish. You can lower the amount of potential contaminants, in some fish, by removing the skin and fat before you cook the fish. You can bake or broil the fish on a rack so that the fat containing the contaminants drips away from the fish.

But don’t panic if you happen to eat a lot of fish one week, for example while you are on vacation. Your body is able to excrete mercury over time. The Environmental Defense Fund’s website has selector guides for seafood and sushi. The guides help you select a variety of fish that are good in nutrition and low in contaminants.

Aging people in some countries that consume larger amounts of fish had reduced rates of dementia and reduced losses of mental functioning. And in other countries where people eat more fish, explains the Wellness Letter from UC Berkeley, the rates of depression are lower. (5) So the bottom line is to eat the right kind of fish, one or two meals per week, because the potential health benefits outweigh the potential negatives. 

For your information, there is a way to tell if the fish on your plate contains heavy metal. Lean over real close, with one ear about an inch from the fish, and listen. If you hear noise pretending to be music, then don’t eat it. It’s a heavy metal fish.

Note: Nothing in this article or any article or book authored or published by Dr. Biebel is intended as medical advice or to replace the advice and/or treatment of a qualified medical professional, which he is not. He is a “soul doctor” committed to passing along what he believes to be reliable health-related information, which a reader may choose to use at his or her own risk.

1: This article is adapted from a chapter in the book Your Mind At Its Best, by David B. Biebel, DMin; James E. Dill, MD; and, Bobbie Dill, RN (Revell, 2011). Used by permission. All rights reserved.
2: “Frequently Asked Questions About PCBs Found in Trout,”at:
3: A copy of the report is posted at:
4: “What You Need to Know About Mercury in Fish and Shellfish.” (US EPA: EPA-823-F-04-009).
5: “Is Fish Really Brain Food?”

Columnist: Dr. David B. Biebel

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Dr. Biebel has authored or co-authored twenty books, including one bestseller: If God Is So Good, Why Do I Hurt So Bad? and the Gold Medallion winner, New Light on Depression. His recent releases include Making God Visible and Away in a Manger: The Christmas Story from a Nativity Scene Lamb's Point of View.

His goal is to help people attain and retain optimal physical, emotional, spiritual, and relational health (personal wholeness) so they can love the Lord with their whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and their neighbors as themselves. He founded Healthy Life Press ( to help new authors with something to contribute in this arena to get their works into print.

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