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Is Seafood Really Brain Food?

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A good diet is necessary for more than just maintaining a healthy weight. There are several essential nutrients we should be consuming regularly. It can definitely get difficult to include every food that may be helpful to every single organ in the body, but it is not impossible. One of the most important organs we often times forget to take care of is the brain. Many conditions affecting the brain may not occur until old age, but there are ways to help prevent disease while we are still young. Eating the right foods, limiting drug use, and even playing word games are examples of these prevention strategies.

One food source that has had some controversy over the years about its safety is seafood. More recently studies have begun concluding that fish is actually considered brain food. The fact that some fish is high in mercury has limited its consumption especially in pregnant women, children, and those with already developed mental conditions, among other diseases. Throughout the years, studies have shown that high levels of mercury in the body can have the opposite effect on the brain than what some are claiming about the fatty acids in fish. What the recent research has shown is that the mercury levels of most fish that we consume are actually very low to have any negative effect at all. This is only true of the recommended quantities of course.

The Effects of Mercury

Mercury is a naturally-occurring chemical in the Earth that gets released by volcanoes and other mechanical disruptions of rocks. The most common cause of the release of mercury is human activity. This includes coal burning, mining, and other industrial processes. Once the released mercury is in the environment it can accumulate in fish and shellfish. Large predatory fish are likely to have a significantly higher content of mercury due to the ingestion of the smaller, mercury-filled fish in the sea. When humans consume fish in high quantities, mercury can have a negative effect on the cognitive function including memory loss. High mercury levels can also impact the kidneys, lungs, digestive system and the immune system.

Despite the possible mercury poisoning, studies claim that the benefits of the omega fatty acids outweigh the negative effects. Mercury poisoning ultimately depends on the consumption dose and frequency, as well as the age of the person consuming the mercury-filled fish. Pregnant women are educated on avoiding fish and shellfish due to the possible adverse effects on neurological development, which can lead to problems with memory, thinking, language, and fine motor skills as children.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids for the Win

One specific fatty acid called docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, travels straight to the brain, which is partly made up of fat. Low levels of DHA are actually linked to a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease. One study evaluated over 500 people obtaining their nutrition information while alive and brain autopsies after death. Those who ate fish at least once per week had lower levels of the physiological markers for Alzheimer’s disease. This was seen in those with the natural genetic marker for Alzheimer’s called ApoE4 that is present in about 30% of the population. In this study, those with this marker accounted for 22% of the participants.

Are Fish Oil Capsules Good Enough?

Many people opt to include supplementation for omega fatty acids in order to avoid the mercury poisoning. According to recent studies, fish oil supplementation has no significant benefit to brain function as consuming the actual fish itself. More companies are now including DHA into supplementation, but it is always advisable to get your nutrients from whole foods, rather than supplements. After all the benefits concluded in the studies were noted with just one serving of seafood per week, therefore should not be difficult to include in your diet. As far as vegan diets go, where fish consumption is not a choice, there are DHA supplements available that are made from algae oil, which is essentially the only non-animal food source with this omega-3 fatty acid.

Choose Wisely

If you are concerned about mercury poisoning but want to enjoy seafood and assure to get a healthy amount of the right omega-3 fatty acids at the same time, then it is important to know which fish have the highest levels of DHA and lowest amount of mercury. Salmon, mackerel, and herring are good choices with the lowest levels of mercury compared to others. Although most tuna is on the list of higher omega-3 content, the mercury levels are significantly high as well. The tuna with the highest mercury concentration is bigeye tuna, which is often times used in sushi restaurants to make popular rolls. As mentioned above, predator fish have the highest level of mercury, which includes shark, swordfish, and tilefish. If you are not a fan of fish, then you can also find DHA in eggs, algae, and fortified beverages.


  1. Martha Clare Morris, ScD, John Brockman, PhD, Julie A. Schneider, MD, MPH, Yamin Wang, PhD, David A. Bennett, MD, Christy C. Tangney, PhD, and Ondine van de Rest, PhD, Association of Seafood Consumption, Brain Mercury Level, and APOE ε4 Status With Brain Neuropathology in Older Adults, Journal
  2. Jacqui Wise, News Higher Levels Of Mercury In Brain Are Not Linked To Increased Risk Of Alzheimer’s, Study Finds, Journal

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