Fish Consumption Advice for Alaskans
There is also good evidence that fish consumption helps reduce the risk of developing prostate cancer. Among 47,882 men followed for 12 years as part of the Health Professionals’ Follow Up Study, men with higher consumption of fish had a lower risk of prostate cancer, and especially metastatic cancer.144 Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and fish consumption also appear to protect against other cancers, including lung and digestive tract cancers. Data from an integrated series of case-control series in Italy found that higher levels of fish consumption (compared with the lowest consumption group) consistently provided protection against the risk of digestive tract cancers, especially colon and rectal cancer. 145
Conclusions Regarding Health Benefits of Fish Consumption Overall, the health status of Alaska’s population has improved greatly during the last fifty years, especially among Alaska Native people. Life expectancy has increased and infant mortality has decreased. The improvements in health status are associated with public health interventions including improvements in sanitation, treatment of infectious diseases, prevention efforts such as immunizations, and improved medical care. While 50 years ago infectious diseases were a leading cause of death, today the leading causes of death in Alaska are related to a “Westernized” diet and lifestyle, which has led to increases in cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Many researchers have recommended maintaining or increasing consumption of foods rich in omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, such as fish, both for the cardiovascular disease prevention benefits as well as the benefits of preventing other chronic diseases. 43
Fish harvest and consumption in Alaska provide important cultural, economic, nutritional and health benefits. Scientific evidence provides extensive documentation of the nutritional superiority and health benefits of fish relative to many other protein sources. Strong evidence exists that decreased consumption of fish—rather than increased consumption—leads to adverse neurological outcomes in the fetus and young child. Particularly in rural Alaska, where healthy alternatives may be limited, recommendations to restrict fish consumption could result in unintended and undesirable consequences in the population. Reduced reliance on fish and other traditional foods often results in increased consumption of market foods high in carbohydrates, sugars, and saturated fats that provide inferior nutrient value.
Unfortunately, these dietary changes already appear have affected Alaskans. Increased use of store-bought, processed foods high in saturated fats, processed sugars, trans-fats, and salt in combination with a sedentary lifestyle have contributed to higher chronic disease prevalence rates among Alaska Native people. Dietary changes such as these promote hypertension, glucose intolerance, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, preterm birth and cancer.
Scientific research continues to document the many benefits of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are found in high levels in fish.75 These benefits may include a reduced risk of developing cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer. In addition, omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids are critical for a healthy pregnancy and neonatal growth and development. Increasing omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid consumption could decrease chronic disease prevalence and increase healthy life-years. In Alaska, multiple data sources support the assertion that the benefits of fish consumption far outweigh the small, theoretical risks associated with mercury exposure.
Consensus Recommendations from the Alaska Scientific Advisory Committee for Fish Consumption
After careful evaluation of the information presented thus far, the Alaska Scientific Advisory Committee for Fish Consumption achieved consensus on the following points:
The 2004 EPA/FDA federal fish advisory,2 which advises sensitive populations to limit fish consumption to 12 ounces per week, is inappropriately restrictive for Alaskans because it does not adequately factor in the relatively low levels of mercury in most Alaska fish species and the important health benefits of fish consumption.