In an interview with The Cut, award-winning singer-songwriter and actress Janelle Monáe revealed that she's recovering from mercury poisoning, which she developed after becoming a pescatarian. It's a startling revelation, given the touted benefits of a pescatarian diet, which include reduced cholesterol and inflammation thanks to an abundance of whole grains, vegetables, and fish and seafood. It is possible, though, to have too much of a good thing. Here's how to ensure you're reaping the benefits of this plant-based diet without putting yourself in jeopardy.
First, What Is Mercury Poisoning?
Mercury poisoning occurs when the toxic metal mercury accumulates in the body. Most human exposure to mercury occurs when inhaling mercury vapors released during industrial processes or eating contaminated fish, according to the World Health Organization. Some fish are riskier than others. Here's why: mercury from things like coal burning and mining settles into the water, where it's ingested by smaller fish, which are eventually eaten by larger fish. This means the largest fish in the food chain — like tuna, swordfish, and shark — can absorb a considerable amount of mercury from the smaller fish they eat during their lifetime. For humans, ingesting too much mercury can cause a number of symptoms, many of which involve the brain and nervous system:
- Muscle weakness
- Skin rashes
- Mood swings
- Memory loss
- Difficulty seeing, hearing, or speaking
- Difficulty walking or writing
- Numbness in the hands, feet, or mouth
Mercury poisoning is particularly risky for women who are pregnant, as exposure to mercury in utero can be harmful to the fetus. (Notably, Monáe explained that she feels ready for motherhood but wants to ensure she's healthy before starting a family.)
Do I Need to Avoid Fish to Prevent Mercury Poisoning?
The overwhelming consensus in the medical community is that it's unnecessary and even ill-advised to deprive yourself of fish and seafood — the health benefits of nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids simply outweigh the risks associated with mercury, even for pregnant women. That said, you should follow the Food and Drug Administration's advice by limiting your consumption to two to three four-ounce servings of low-mercury fish or seafood each week or one serving of a protein from the moderate category. (You can bookmark or print the FDA's chart here.) Importantly, women who are pregnant should eat only fish and seafood that are low in mercury.
The agency notes that some freshly caught fish, such as larger carp, catfish, trout, and perch, are more likely to have fish advisories due to mercury or other contaminants. Check with your state to find out how often you can safely eat those fish.
How Do I Follow a Pescatarian Diet Safely?
First, don't let the risks of mercury scare you away. "Just make better choices," Will Haas, MD, MBA, an instructor at the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine, told POPSUGAR, adding that seafood is an important part of an anti-inflammatory diet, and these foods — especially fish that are rich in omega-3s — can offer unique benefits over other sources of protein.
At the same time, it's important to remember that a pescatarian diet isn't a free pass to eat seafood at every meal or even daily. You should still stick to two to three servings a week (or one, if you're opting for a protein with moderate amounts of mercury), supplementing your diet with a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and other healthy foods that fuel your body.
Like any diet, this one is all about balance. If you love Chilean sea bass, which is considered to be higher in mercury, eating it a few times a year isn't going to put you in grave danger — as long as you're not hitting the seafood buffet the same week. Keep the FDA's list of mercury rankings handy, or do as Dr. Haas suggests and download a reliable app like Seafood Watch to help you determine the amount of mercury in your seafood of choice.
Most importantly, remember that you should consult your doctor and make an appointment with a registered dietitian before going on any restrictive diet, in order to ensure your nutritional needs are being met.