Congress might be fed up, but America’s children aren’t

Dr. Gilbert Ross Medical and Executive Director, American Council on Science and Health
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The House recessed without reauthorizing the child nutrition bill because Members couldn’t reconcile differences between anti-hunger and pro-nutrition interest groups.

Note to Congress: real Americans are forced to make these choices every day.

The lucky ones know that a tuna fish sandwich is both highly nutritious and affordable, but this once ubiquitous lunchbox staple is fast becoming an anachronism.

Studies show consumers have been eating less seafood because they’re afraid of mercury. Americans eat, on average, fewer than eight cans of tuna in an entire year. The fears driving this trend are unfounded, and in fact, research shows omitting seafood from your diet brings health risks.

Unfortunately, the science linking fish to health benefits has been obscured by various agendas.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published a draft of a groundbreaking risk/benefit analysis on fish consumption and mercury in January 2009. The FDA found that eating more fish boosts babies’ brain development during and after pregnancy as well as provides protective benefits for the heart as we grow and age.

Positive nutrition information like this ought to be more widely known, but 20 months later, the FDA has yet to publish a final report and hasn’t announced if or when its work might be complete. Many media outlets and activists have continued to perpetuate myths about fish being dangerous to eat — and it’s time the FDA helped put a stop to that.

In addition to the FDA’s report, the administration has other opportunities to emphasize healthy choices.

At the end of this year, the government will issue its updated Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The committee reviewing the guidelines, after a two-year exhaustive review of the latest science, is recommending that Americans eat at least two servings of seafood a week to get the nutrients that protect our hearts, stave off strokes, protect our eyesight and provide many other benefits.

The committee is also recommending that women who are pregnant, breastfeeding or who may become pregnant eat at least two servings of seafood a week. The nutrients in seafood are essential for babies’ brain development — in fact, mothers who ate seafood throughout pregnancy gave birth to babies with higher IQs compared to moms who ate less than two servings of seafood a week.

It’s vital that women get this information. Based on the FDA’s limits on trace mercury exposure, a woman of average weight can safely consume 21 cans of light tuna every week for the rest of her life before risking even theoretical health effects.

I bet you haven’t heard that.  It’s more likely you’ve heard the opposite — that women should cut down on their seafood intake. Sadly, that’s just what has happened, to the detriment of our health.

Government agencies actually influence what the media encourage us to eat. When the Dietary Guidelines are updated, their effects will trickle into stories in magazines and on television. It’s important that these guidelines reflect the most accurate science on what’s healthy.

America isn’t the only country that can improve in this area. A joint report by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization and the World Health Organization scolded world governments for not communicating to their citizens the importance of eating seafood twice a week — and counteracting misinformation on mercury content.

The First Lady is on a campaign for healthier kids and families. President Obama put scientific integrity in public policy at the top of his campaign agenda and pledged in his inaugural address to “restore science to its rightful place.” This is a tremendous opportunity for his administration to do just that, and fulfill promises that Mr. and Mrs. Obama have made to Americans — to help us all live healthier lives.

Gilbert Ross, M.D. is the Medical Director of the American Council on Science and Health.