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Do pescatarians get mercury poisoning?

by Ezra 4 minutes read

Last updated: 18 Jan, 2023

Although rare, it is possible to develop mercury poisoning if too much fish or seafood is consumed on a pescatarian diet. This can be easily avoided by limiting the amount of fish you eat and only eating fish that is low in mercury.

A pescatarian is somebody who eliminates all meat and poultry from their diet except fish and other seafood.

There are many benefits to only eating fish instead of meat. Fish is an excellent source of protein and is rich in many minerals and nutrients, including calcium, phosphorus, zinc, iodine, magnesium, iron, and potassium. It is also high in omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids.

Benefits of the pescatarian diet

  • Lowers blood pressure

  • Reduces risk of heart attacks, coronary heart disease, and strokes

  • Protects against some colorectal cancers

  • Reduces risk of type 2 diabetes

  • Lowers BMI and supports weight loss

  • Environmentally conscious way of living as it reduces individual carbon footprint

What is mercury poisoning?

In 2020, mercury poisoning hit international headlines when actress Janelle MonĂ¡e revealed that her pescatarian diet had caused her to develop high levels of mercury. Monae is reported to have said that the experience left her starting to feel her mortality.

Mercury poisoning occurs when too much mercury, a toxic metal, accumulates within the body. Mercury is an element naturally found in water, soil, and air but overexposure can be caused through the environment or diet. Although the human body needs trace amounts of mercury, when mercury levels are too high it can cause a variety of health problems.

Symptoms of mercury poisoning

  • Issues relating to the nervous system like dizziness, insomnia, headaches, and numbness in the hands, feet, or face

  • Impaired cognitive abilities like memory problems, mood swings, and problems with speech, hearing, and sight

  • Impaired motor abilities like lack of coordination and trouble walking and writing

  • Muscle weakness

  • Metallic taste in mouth

  • Organ failure

  • Skin rashes

For pregnant women and children, mercury poisoning is particularly risky. This form of poisoning targets the critical areas that children and foetuses are still developing, such as their nervous system and brains. Babies are also more likely to be born with severe birth defects like developmental abnormalities, cerebral palsy, blindness, and deafness.

Recovering from mercury poisoning is possible by stopping all consumption of fish and seafood and undergoing chelation therapy. This form of therapy allows the mercury to be filtered out of the body.

What fish should pescatarians avoid?

Those following a pescatarian diet may be more susceptible to mercury poisoning as certain species of fish are high in mercury. Methylmercury is an organic mercury found mainly in predatory fish, which contain high levels of mercury because of their superior status on the food chain. These fish will live longer and be larger than the majority of other fish due to their ability to accumulate more methylmercury in their tissues.

The main fish pescatarians should avoid eating are swordfish, shark, mackerel (king), tuna (bigeye), marlin, tilefish, and orange roughy. These are predatory fish and should not be regularly consumed.

There are many fish and seafood which are safe for pescatarians to eat as they contain low levels of mercury. These are generally smaller fish which are lower on the food chain. These include:

Anchovy Atlantic croaker Atlantic mackerel Black sea bass
Butterfish Catfish Clam Cod
Crab Crawfish Flounder Haddock
Hake Herring Lobster (American, spiny) Mullet
Oyster Pacific chub mackerel Perch (freshwater, ocean) Pickerel
Plaice Pollock Salmon Sardine
Scallop Shad Shrimp Skate
Smelt Sole Squid Tilapia
Trout (freshwater) Tuna (canned light) Whitefish Whiting

It is recommended to eat low-mercury fish only 2 or 3 times a week.

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