Yep, on June 11, 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration endorsed pregnant women eating fish. You can read the announcements online at:
The announcement and links to attached documents can be found here:
This announcement of release can also can be found here on the Federal registry.
The story behind this was years in the breaking, significantly attributable to one incredibly brilliant and passionate scientist and good friend: Dr. Joseph Hibbeln.
In 2000, I met with Dr. Joe Hibbeln, for a whole a day at the National Institute on Alcohol and Alcohol Abuse (NIAAA). His lab was then, and is now, epicenter of research of the effects of the omega-3 fatty acid (what most of us call, “fish oil”) on brain development and behavior. It was a magical day, topped of by a wonderful evening meal of fresh fish and good wine.
About a year before that meeting, when I first started hearing about omega-3 or fish oil, I thought it was rock crystals, alien abductions, and vortexes. That was my thought, until I read the results of a first randomized trial with people around 1999. As is my intellectual habit, I closely read the references and the abstracts cited by pioneering treatment study testing omega-3. I noticed an unusual last name in many of the references, Hibbeln as a major author of many of the studies. I looked him up and discovered he was the head of the molecular membrane laboratory at NIAAA. I read his papers.
I called Joe, and loved his ebullient personality and intellectual playfulness that had a razor-sharp attention to good science. I made an appointment to meet him when next in Baltimore, when doing my research work with Johns Hopkins on the PAX Good Behavior Game. The meeting was profound for me. Joe’s presentations that day tickled every part of my brain, because of the breadth of data and consilience across historical trends, biology, behavior development, and evolutionary theory. Joe’s presentation gave me flashes of beautiful parsimony, often the root of great scientific discoveries.
Flash number one involved realizing what the brain is composed of. Most people think water. Try again. Well, it’s largely fat. And what fat mostly? Long-chain, 3-carbon ring polyunsaturated fats. That fat creates neuron walls, and holds in the all the water-soluble molecules inside the cell, yet also allows for channels through the cell walls for neuro-transmitters of many kinds. So where does that unique fat come from to build the human brain? In our earliest history, our brains grew rapidly from easy-to-catch fish that children and adults of both genders could gather in the birthplace of modern humans, the Rift Valley of Africa. Land animals—even big ones, by contrast while meaty, simply did not contain enough omega-3 to build human brains.
Another flash happened. This omega-3 polyunsaturated fat caused positive behavior changes in humans. Our brains work faster, making us more prosocial and cooperative, rapidly interacting with the development of symbolic langauge. That, in turn, enables us to become smarter individually and collectively to make tools, adapt to new environments, and invent new ways of living better (or make instruments of war).
A giant flash happened when Joe showed graphs of the consumption of a different polyunsaturated fat, omega-6 (six carbon rings). Around the end of World War II, human diets radically changed, because huge surpluses of corn and soybeans that had been used to make nitrates of gunpowder. What to do with all those leftover seeds? Somebody figured out that you could make edible oils by using petroleum distillates.
Then, for the first time in human evolutionary history, we started eating mountains of another fatty acid, omega-6 that is found in all the vegetable oils from soybeans, cottonseed, corn, etc. now in virtually every prepared food, convenience food that we eat like manic snack piranhas. Today, about 20% of the calories we consume in America come from soybean oil, which is ubiquitous and hidden in our daily diet.
Then, Joe showed a graph of consumption by birth cohort. Almost immediately I exclaimed: “That looks almost exactly like the graph of the increase in depression by birth cohort.” I earned a gold star and kudos from Joe for being the first person to spontaneously notice this. As it turns out, his and others’ research shows that increasing omega-6 in our diets is causative of diverse mental illnesses: depression, bipolar disorder, suicide and homicide.
From that day forward, I began earnestly to follow the research on omega-3 as a protective mechanism against mental, emotional and behavioral disorders. I have no financial interest in omega-3, but I do have a passion for good science that shows we can have more and more children group up to healthy in body, mind and spirit.
One day, I had another meeting with Joe at his lab. He gave me an envelop with a major study in it that was to be published in the Lancet, showing that mothers who consumed two-servings or more of oily fish during pregnancy had much better outcomes for their children by age 8. For mothers who followed the then recommendation by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Food and Drug Agency (FDA) NOT to eat oily fish during pregnancy had 32% of their children development mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders by age 8, compared to 15% of the children of moms who ate oily fish during pregnancy .
Joe suggested that a good friend of mine from Tucson might like to read this paper before it was published because of the enormous health consequences of this study of 13,000 mother child pairs funded by the United States and United Kingdom. That good friend was the Surgeon General. At the time, the political people in the Bush White House did not want the Surgeon General Richard Carmona to know about the findings for a variety of reasons too surreal to describe here. I got to give that paper to my friend, who did use that information for good.
You see it is not the fish that are responsible for mercury in their flesh. Rather, it’s largely coal powered electric plants that are responsible for the contamination. Blaming the fish kept people from paying attention to the source of the mercury—the people who mined coal, the people who made the coal powered plants, and the greedy people who refused to make those sources of power safer.* The truth is, however, that our unborn children will suffer lifetime risk if they don’t get frequent servings of oily fish from their mother’s diets and too much omega-6 .
The evidence was always there that mother’s eating fish was a pretty good idea for fetal brain development. Good heavens, if eating fish caused babies to be born mentally defective, then Japanese children should have the worst developmental, educational, and mental outcomes. They don’t. For Heaven’s sake, their mom’s eat fish all the time, and so do those Scandinavian countries. The last time I looked, the Japanese children and other countries with high fish consumption all have better developmental and mental health outcomes. Gosh, if you remember, people used to take cod liver oil for their health, for good reason though it tasted awful.
Yes, it’s true that some fish are not a good idea to eat, but that is not the fault of the fish. It’s the fault of greedy humans causing deep harm to the circle of life—causing the fish to harmed by very high levels chemicals such as mercury. One of the hyperlinks lists some fish that should be avoided. That said, this is a reminder of what Rachel Carson wrote about when I was in college in the book, “Silent Spring.” The notion that raw, naked capitalism will work to reduce pollution that kills or maims people is plainly self-serving by those who have the most to gain by the pollution.
The announcement by the EPA and FDA rights a wrong. And, Joe Hibbeln made that happen. There are heroes of protecting children’s futures, and Joe is one of them. Anyone with Internet access can read the actual publications by Dr. Joseph Hibbeln, at the National Institutes of Health, by navigating to www.pubmed.gov, the famed National Library of Medicine. Just type in the search engine, Joseph Hibbeln or “Hibbeln and omega-3”.
*Personally, we invested in solar cells for home and two electric cars. We now put power back into the grid for our neighbors at a cheaper than coal, gas or nuclear. And, we basically pay just the connect fee per month. Our breakeven on that investment is about 4.5-to 5 years, which we just passed.
1. Hibbeln, J., et al., Maternal seafood consumption in pregnancy and neurodevelopmental outcomes in childhood (ALSPAC study): an observational cohort study. The Lancet, 2007. 369(9561): p. 578-585.
2. Hibbeln, J.R., et al., Healthy intakes of n-3 and n-6 fatty acids: estimations considering worldwide diversity. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2006. 83(6 Suppl): p. 1483S-1493S.