Fish foods play a prominent role in the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025. Broadly grouped as “seafoods,” fish and shellfish are integral to healthy dietary patterns and recommended across all life stages. The dietary guidelines, published every five years since 1980, build on previous editions and incorporate new scientific evidence. This year, the guidelines uniquely apply a lifespan approach and promote healthy dietary patterns rather than single nutrients, foods, or even food groups. In fact, users are called on to “customize” the guidelines based on personal preferences, cultural foodways, and affordability.
“Make every bite count” is the clever message communicated throughout the guidelines. Seafoods, containing vitamins, minerals and other health-promoting components, are among the nutrient-dense foods promoted. They appear in the protein group with lean meat, eggs, poultry, legumes, nuts, seeds, and soy products. Seafoods surface again in the oils group, positioned as a healthy natural source of oils like nuts and avocados. The guidelines point to the healthy advantages of fish, such as containing polyunsaturated oils [docosahexeanoic acid (DHA) and eicosapenteanoic acid (EPA)], as well as vitamins B12 and D.
The new guidelines specify the amount of seafoods recommended in the diet at different phases of the lifespan. For example, adults ages 19 years or older should have 8-10 ounces of seafood each week. Special consideration is given to some stages of life when additional nutrients found in fish (e.g., iron, iodine, and choline) are needed for growth, development, and other physiological processes. For example, young children ages 6-23 months should consume 2-3 ounces per week, and those ages 2-18 years should have between 2-10 ounces per week, depending on total dietary calories. To support cognitive development of offspring and the demands of pregnancy, seafood intake is recommended to pregnant women in higher quantities, 8-12 ounces per week.
One astonishing fact highlighted in the guidelines is that current levels of seafood intakes are well below the recommended amounts for people of all ages, as shown in Figure 1. Almost 90% of Americans don’t reach needed amounts for seafoods despite meeting or exceeding those for protein foods more broadly. This is most concerning for infants and young children undergoing rapid brain development.
The guidelines do not paint an entirely rosy picture for seafoods, providing some nuance in the recommendations. Caution is given for consumption of seafoods containing methylmercury that may be harmful to brain development. Examples of fish and shellfish foods with likely lower concentrations of the contaminant are offered: anchovy, black sea bass, catfish, clams, cod, crab, crawfish, flounder, haddock, hake, herring, lobster, mullet, oyster, perch, pollock, salmon, sardine, scallop, shrimp, sole, squid, tilapia, freshwater trout, light tuna, and whiting. Users of the guidelines are encouraged to visit the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency websites for more advice. Food safety practices are similarly noted around fish preparation to prevent listeriosis and other infections. Finally, seafoods are among the potentially allergenic foods noted in the guidelines. Based on current evidence and potential harms in not consuming fish, seafoods are recommended to be introduced early in complementary feeding of infants.
In sum, seafoods are nutrient-dense and recommended across the life course by the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025. However, current dietary intakes are well below the recommended levels. Seafoods are health promoting according to the new guidelines with some precautions made about methylmercury and food safety. One key gap in the guidelines is the absence of sustainability and environmental considerations around seafood selection and other foods more broadly. Nonetheless, the guidelines affirm the important work of the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Fish for ensuring more bites of fish for people around the world.
U.S. Department of Agriculture & U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2020, December). Dietary guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025 (9th ed). Available at DietaryGuidelines.gov
Lora Iannotti is the nutrition specialist for the Fish Innovation Lab, as well as a PI on the lab’s SecureFish and Samaki Salama projects. She is an associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis and director of the E3 Nutrition Lab.
Published January 22, 2021