(CNN) - The humble tuna sandwich, once a lunchbox staple, is making less frequent appearances in school cafeterias across the nation. American children are eating relatively little fish and shellfish in comparison to meat, according to a new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The report, published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, explores both the health benefits and the risks associated with eating what once swam in the sea while informing parents of the safest, most sustainable choices for their children.
"Seafood consumption by children has declined every year since 2007 to levels not seen since the early 1980s," the report authors wrote. "Fish and shellfish are, in general, good sources of low-fat protein rich in several essential vitamins and minerals as well as, in certain instances, the essential nutrients omega-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids." Omega-3s are known to improve brain function, according to the report.
Other health benefits for children who include fish and seafood in their diets include the possibility of preventing some allergic reactions, such as asthma and eczema, and decreasing in cardiovascular disease risk.
However, risks include potential harmful effects on a child's developing nervous system after eating fish contaminated with methylmercury pollution. When mercury from burning coal and some types of mining settles into water, bacteria convert it into methylmercury, which can build up in fish.
Federal advisories on possible fish contamination may have "pushed people away from eating fish in general and canned tuna in particular," the authors theorize. Their recommendations steer parents toward aquatic fare that may be safely included in children's diets.
Safe choices for families
Each week, children and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should eat one to two servings of a variety of fish from those listed among the "best" and "good" choices identified by the US Food and Drug Administration. Salmon, tuna, flounder, crawfish, sardines, cod and scallops are included in the "best" choices.
Freshwater fish eaters should check US Environmental Protection Agency advisories before making a meal of what they catch, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends. Fish and shellfish captured in freshwater bodies may have high concentrations of pollutants. If a body of water goes unmonitored, families should not eat fish from it more than once a week.
Sustainability should also be factored into meal decisions, since some of the world's fishing grounds are over-harvested, the authors explained: Not quite a third of global fish stocks are overexploited, while 60% are harvested at or near their maximum sustainable yield. The most commonly consumed seafood in the United States -- shrimp -- usually comes from highly unsustainable overseas fisheries, according to the report.
Generally, US fisheries remain free of both environmentally damaging and child labor practices that occur in some regions of the world, according the academy. Buying American fish and seafood, whether farmed or fresh-caught, is often a sustainable choice, though this is not to say that other nations do not also have sustainable sources of fish and seafood.
Get 'em while they're young
Maria Romo-Palafox, a registered dietician and postdoctoral fellow with the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut, said the new report is "very thorough."
"I think one of the main things to remember is that there's no one perfect food or one perfect diet. So the fact that this report is recommending more fish in children's diet does not mean that the experts want children to only consume fish," said Romo-Palafox, who was not involved in the research report.
There's no need for special foods or special diets for most children, said Romo-Palafox, who reminds parents that "by age 2, children should be eating the same foods as the adults in the household."
She also noted that fish has a very specific "taste profile," so children need to learn to like it "before it's too late." By age 5, children have established most of their eating habits and food preferences, so parents need to get them to try fish and seafood frequently before that age because it will be harder to get them to eat it when they're older.
Every fish and every seafood option has different levels of nutrients, so if you consume only one type of fish, you'll get only one nutrient profile.
"Buy different fish, try different fish, and rotate them; that's the healthiest way to eat them," she said, adding that when kids see their parents try a food, they themselves will at least be curious about it and want to try it. Model fish-eating behavior, said Romo-Palafox, who has been researching the diets of children 5 and younger for the past eight years. Buy the fish you like to eat, prepare it in a way you like, and serve the same to your children.
More generally, she believes all of us should consider our planet's health as well as our own. "We need to start thinking about sustainable diets. And fish is a really good option," she said.
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Maria Romo-Palafox's name.
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