Real Danger of Mercury Poisoning from Fish in Bodybuilding

Mercury Poisoning in Bodybuilding

Understand the Micro and Macro breakdown of Foods

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For a very long time I have adhered to a regimented diet. I eat the same foods for breakfast each day and have a menu for my evening meals during the week. The menu is not set in stone, but I seldom make any changes. This saves me from having to figure out what I am going to eat for my two meals each day. It makes life simpler.

Lately, however, I have been forced to make some changes. Every time I turn around I come across another health warning about a food which has been one of my nutritional staples. Mad Cow disease forced me to question where my beef had originated and since no one seemed to know exactly what was going on, I reduced my consumption of red meat.

About that same time, there was a salmonella scare in eggs and chickens. This prompted me to stop eating soft-boiled eggs, which is one of my favorite ways of preparing them. Chicken wasn't a problem. I didn't mind taking a few extra minutes to wash my poultry thoroughly and clean up right away. I was doing that before the salmonella warning came along.

None of this was a big deal, even if I had to cut back on poultry, beef and eggs, there were still plenty of good sources of protein out there. Then I read an interesting article and it spelled out the dangers of drinking milk and hit home. It mentioned milk was considered the perfect food and I, like almost every other athlete, drank it in large quantities. Before the market was flooded with so many protein supplements, milk was how we gained and maintained our bodyweight. I can recall a number of bodybuilders and strength athletes who carried a gallon of milk to the weight room and drank it during their workouts. Unless a person was lactose-intolerant, milk was the best friend of anyone who was trying to pack on the pounds.

In light of this new information presented by recent studies, that notion has to change. The mentioned article also brought back memories of another scare about milk in the 1960s. This was when there was nuclear testing being conducted in many parts of the world. Health experts stated that the radioactive fallout was making its way from the ground, into the grass, into the cows and ending up in our milk. Many people took this threat seriously.

Dr. John Ziegler, the mastermind behind anabolic steroids and isometric training, was one of them. When I moved to York, Pennsylvania in the mid '60s, Dr. Ziegler was serving as the team physician for the York Barbell Club, the national champion Olympic weightlifting team. All of the lifters were checked out by Dr. Ziegler on a regular basis and on one such visit, he brought up the threat of fallout in milk and advised me to eliminate all dairy from my diet.

Envisioning myself with several types of cancer, I did as he suggested ... for two weeks. Total abstinence was killing me. I was losing bodyweight and with it, strength. A protein milk shake made with fruit juice just wasn't cutting it for me. I needed those made with milk, yogurt and ice cream. Drinking protein shakes was the only way I could maintain my bodyweight and keep training hard. I decided that I would rather end up with radioactive poisoning than lose more strength. Keep in mind that this irrational decision was made by a 26-year-old who was addicted to the desire to gain more strength. At that stage of my life, achieving my goal was more important than anything else. Including my health.

I'm older now and although I may not necessarily be much wiser, I do have different priorities and nutritional needs than when I was trying to lift several hundred pounds over my head. Therefore, drinking less milk and eating smaller quantities of dairy products isn't a big deal for me. In fact, I had already cut back on all my dairy due to skyrocketing prices. When thousands of cattle afflicted with Mad Cow disease were destroyed, farmers began selling their milk cows for beef. This created a shortage in milk, driving up prices on all dairy products by 25 percent or more. So while Richard's article did enlighten me, it didn't cause me to alter my diet.

My plan was to eat less dairy, drink half as much milk and to compensate. I would increase my dosage of magnesium-calcium and multiple mineral supplements and add more fish to my menu to make up for the lost protein. But the best laid plans ...

The first reports about certain fish containing high mercury levels didn't mention tuna which made me very happy I could get along just fine without swordfish, Atlantic halibut and shark. As for most bodybuilders, tuna has a special place in my heart. Tuna is inexpensive, stored well, transported easily, and can be prepared in a snap. A buddy of mine would carry a can of tuna in his gym bag and as soon as he finished his workout, he would open it with one of those little military-type openers and eat it with his fingers. Bingo. He replaced his spent protein in a flash.

If I have a poor appetite I can always down a can of tuna. I add in good mayo, some relish, sometimes a hard-boiled egg and feast. Not only does it provide eight grams of protein per ounce, but it's also chock full of two types of omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA). These are the good kind of unsaturated fats that our body needs to function properly. It has been shown that omega-3 fatty acids help prevent heart disease while a deficiency results in memory loss, depression and an inability to learn. They have been promoted as a necessary addition to every older person's diet because high amounts can ease digestive problems, inhibit cancerous tumors and relieve pain and inflammation and even aid in preventing Alzheimer's disease.

That's why the American Heart Association recommends eating at least two servings of fish per week, especially fatty fish such as salmon. A guideline I followed religiously until more facts about mercury in seafood began to emerge.

It turns out that those early reports on high amounts of mercury in fish did not include tuna because of the strong lobby by the tuna industry in Washington. Independent studies revealed that tuna did, in fact, contain mercury. My safe little nutritional world wasn't quite as safe any more. In a short period of time, articles in environmental and conservation publications began spreading the alarming news and warning pregnant women and small children to greatly reduce the amount of fish and other seafood in their diets. Bill Moyers, who doesn't mind butting heads with the big boys, did an in-depth expose of the dangers of mercury in fish including tuna on his PBS show Now.

The news wasn't good. Based on data collected in 1999-2000 by the Centers for Disease Control, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that one out of six women of childbearing age has mercury levels in her blood above the EPA's safe threshold. As a result, more than 600,000 newborns each year are at risk because of mercury exposure in the womb.

After watching that show, I decided I would stop eating all seafood until I found out more. During this hiatus, I increased my dosages of cod liver oil to make up for the loss of fatty acids and vitamins A and D.

Being a tree hugger, I subscribe to several environmental publications. National Wildlife, the journal of the National Wildlife Federation, presented the information I was seeking. I learned that methyl mercury, the organic form of mercury that contaminates fish and accumulates in humans and wildlife that eat those fish, is highly toxic. It has been shown to interfere with the development of the central nervous system in infants who can ingest it from breast milk when mothers eat contaminated fish. Children who eat fish laced with mercury can suffer from lack of coordination, attention deficiency, and other disabilities. In adults, evidence suggests methyl mercury poisoning can contribute to heart disease and affect fertility and blood pressure.

The problem, however, is much more widespread than I imagined. According to the EPA, mercury has polluted 10.2 million acres of lakes, estuaries and wetlands, and 415,000 miles of streams, rivers and coasts across the US. More than 40 states and US territories have warned residents to limit consumption of certain types of fish and 17 states have issued mercury advisories for fish in every inland body of water.

While reading this, the question that crossed my mind was, Where was all this mercury coming from? Another article in that same magazine gave me the answer - I coal-fired power plants. They are, by far, the ' largest sources of mercury pollution and, to my amazement, they are unregulated. The positive news was that in 2002, the EPA stated that by following the Clean Air Act requirements in place since 1970, power plants could feasibly cut mercury emissions by 90 percent by 2010.

Then the unbelievable happened. In 2003, the Bush Administration announced plans to relax federal controls on mercury emissions from power plants. This came only days after the Food and Drug Administration issued revised warnings to women and young children to strictly limit their weekly consumption of fish due to mercury concerns. That draft advisory did include tuna.

Unbelievable, but not out of character. President Bush has consistently given priority to corporate needs over the health and welfare of the public. What is he thinking?

Don't he and his family eat fish? Health officials were outraged. Dr. Philippe Grandjean, an environmental health expert at Harvard University's School of Public Health said, "This is a bad decision. Mercury affects brain development and the more mercury we're exposed to, the worse off we are."

The new proposal would allow coal-fired plant operators to postpone a requirement that they install modern technology to reduce mercury pollution for as long as a decade. "We know without doubt that mercury poses a threat, particularly to children. This regulation will only make things worse," states Dr. Judith Stein, former co-chair of the Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Since the federal government is clearly more interested in keeping big business happy rather than safeguarding the health of its citizens, many states have taken matters into their own hands. In a cooperative venture, the organization of New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers have committed to cutting mercury levels from power plants by 75 percent by the year 2010. In 2003, Connecticut passed an even stronger state statute which requires a 90 percent reduction by 2008.

So what does all this boil down to for ordinary people like you and me who enjoy training, want to stay healthy, and eat sensibly? For one thing, consumption of fish must be in moderation. Mercury pollution is going to be with us for a long time and we ave to deal with it. I've known weightlifters and bodybuilders who ate two cans of tuna a day, and increased that amount even more when they were preparing for a contest. That practice is no longer wise.

I started eating fish again, but became very selective. In addition to my concern about mercury levels, I was also aware that many species are being fished to extinction and I planned to avoid them. It was no great sacrifice to bypass Chilean sea bass, bluefin tuna, and orange roughy, although I must admit that the latter is one of my favorites. If I can help them repopulate, that is a small price to pay.

Having learned that not all fish contain the same amount of mercury, I followed the advice of experts and bought a different type of fish each week. Since doing this, I have been pleasantly surprised to discover many new kinds of fish which I would never have thought of eating before. Now I enjoy haddock, oreo dorey, hake, tilapia and bass. Before the mercury scare I stuck with salmon and tuna, with an occasional fillet of trout or catfish. This venture into more variety has been a favorable experience.

I eat fish only once a week and I also eat smaller portions than previously. Instead of buying three-quarters of a pound, I buy a third of a pound. Since I am much less active than I used to be, this is plenty. Finally, I increased my intake of cod liver oil and vitamins A and D to make up for what I am not getting from fish. Hopefully this plan will work for me. The last thing I need is for my brain to get foggier than it already is.

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