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Health Hazards of Mercury
Many of my patients love fish as much as I do. It’s a good source of protein, heart-healthy Omega-3 fat, and delicious! Living in an area surrounded by water, fresh fish is plentiful. However, I would like to share with you a major disadvantage of eating fish too often – mercury (Hg) levels.
To date, no cases of mercury poisoning from eating fish have been reported in the United States. Concern about this happening, however, has grown in the last 10 years. Although most American fish are safe to eat, many states issue health advisories limiting the consumption of certain types of fish.
As I like to tell my patients, you can enjoy fish and seafood safely. The key words are avoidance of some fish and moderation with others.
Let me explain to you how mercury gets into our food and who is at risk. I will also provide you with some tips on what you can do to prevent mercury from becoming a toxic problem.
How Does Mercury Get Into Our Environment?
Mercury enters our air from the burning of coal, wood or oil. Rain and/or snow washes it down into soil, grasses, our oceans, lakes, rivers and streams. It can also enter water from Hg-containing medical engineering waste that might be dumped into the ocean or lakes.
In water, mercury then turns into the highly toxic compound methylmercury which is easily absorbed by fish through their gills or from the marine life they eat. The cooking process does not remove it, so every time we eat fish or seafood, we can get trace levels of mercury.
As a physician, I am concerned about the potential chronic exposure of my patients to dietary mercury as it stores in tissues. Research shows that most people are exposed to mercury from eating fish. However, the amount of Hg you take in depends on what kind of fish you eat and where it comes from.
Who Is At Risk?
Although everyone, men, women, children, of all ages are at risk for dietary mercury toxicity, women (especially pregnant women) and newborns are at highest risk. In a recent study, 10% of American women were found to be only 1/10th away from toxic levels of Hg!
From eating tuna even twice a week, a woman can have too high levels of mercury stored in her tissues before she becomes pregnant. Mercury can pass to the newborn and cause serious neurological damage and even death of the fetus.
Breastfed children can also be exposed through breast milk. Young children are also at higher risk because their brains and nervous systems are not fully developed until around age 11. They should not consume more than 12 ounces of low-mercury fish per week.
Are All Fish Equal Mercury Risk?
The short answer to this question is No. Certain lake fish such as largemouth bass and walleye, top of the food chain fish, can have mercury (and other toxic) levels a million times higher than that in the water! If you enjoy sport fishing, be aware that these types of lake fish can be toxic.
The longer answer to this question is, yes, maybe. Almost all fish and seafood contain some mercury and light to moderate consumption of fish should not be a health concern. As I tell my patients, your risk of Hg toxicity increases with the amount and type of fish you eat on a regular basis.
Here’s what the US EPA and the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) recommend people do to reduce mercury exposure from eating fish:
•Avoid shark, king mackerel, swordfish, tilefish, grouper, marlin, orange mackerel, lake bass, walleye – these have the highest levels of Hg.
•Limit white albacore tuna to 18 oz per month – it contains more Hg than light tuna.
•Limit saltwater bass, croaker, halibut, bluefin tuna, sea trout, Maine lobster to 18 oz per month. These have moderate levels of Hg.
•Limit Carp, Mahi-Mahi, crab, snapper, perch, cod and monkfish to 24 oz per month. These have lower levels of Hg.
•Shrimp, sardines, canned light tuna, wild Alaskan salmon, pollock, whitefish and catfish, black cod – these have the lowest levels of Hg. You can enjoy up to 12 ounces per week.
*Please visit the NDRC website for a more complete list and their mercury calculator to get a personal recommendation using the fish you like and how much to eat at http://www.nrdc.org
What Else Can I Do About Mercury Exposure?
The good news is that although Hg stores in body tissues, it is also released. You can eliminate it from your body in about 6-12 months if:
•Faster – You avoid eating fish that contain mercury completely.
• Slower – You limit your fish/shellfish intake to the lowest Hg levels noted above.
Here are some other nature-based suggestions to help you keep yourself free of toxic mercury levels:
•Drink adequate amounts of water daily to flush toxins from your body tissues. Half your weight should be consumed daily. If you weigh 200 lbs, drink 100 oz of water.
•Avoid high fructose corn syrup – two recent studies suggest it may contain Hg.
•Avoid vaccines or contact lens solutions that contain thimerosal – this is a mercury preservative.
•Dental amalgams – if you have old mercury amalgams, replace them with newer, tooth-colored ones without mercury compounds. Your teeth will look great and you will be free from the mercury source.
•Add some fermented foods to your diet – things like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, help remove toxins from your body by creating good gut bacteria.
•Adequate amounts of Vitamin C and E – help prevent harmful effects of mercury.
•Add some natural chelators to your diet – things like garlic, selenium, coriander and chlorella. These substances bind to toxins like mercury and move them out of your body.
•Adequate fiber intake – is important for good health and to reduce levels of mercury accumulation.
•If you have old mercury thermometers – change them for digital thermometers. Make sure you remove the old Hg thermometers and toxic waste like old paint.
•Energy efficient light bulbs – or CFLs contain minute amounts of Hg. If they break, open windows for 15 minutes to disperse fumes. Keep children and pets away to avoid inhaling or scattering the dust. DO NOT vacuum as this will disperse the dust. Wear rubber gloves and cover your nose and mouth to be on the safe side to avoid inhaling its dust. Tape or a wet cloth will help catch particles. Used must also be disposed of as toxic waste.
Mercury exposure is something we should all avoid in our diets and environment as much as possible. It can have very damaging effects on our brains and kidneys and cause a whole list of symptoms and conditions including depression, fertility problems and even Alzheimer’s disease!
With a little common sense, however, following the guidelines listed here, we can still enjoy eating the seafood we love so much without worrying about toxicity!
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