Does eating fish increase the risk of cancer?

Historically, fish consumption has been associated with good general health.

However, a recent study published in Cancer Causes and Control seems to cast doubt on that idea, given that, after analyzing almost 500,000 participants, it found that people who eat more fish have a higher risk of melanoma (the most serious type of skin cancer).

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that starts when melanocytes (the cells that give skin its tan or brown color) start to grow out of control.

Although melanoma is much less common than other types of skin cancer (accounting for only 1% of skin cancer cases), it is more dangerous because it is much more likely to spread to other parts of the body if it is not found and treated early. weather.

By 2022, the American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates for melanoma in the US are 99,780 new cases and 7,650 deaths. In Latin America and the Caribbean, during 2020, 18,881 new cases were registered, and 5,617 deaths, according to the Global Cancer Observatory (GCO).

In turn, the frequency of melanoma is more than 20 times higher in Caucasians. The ACS notes that the risk of melanoma is approximately 2.6% (1 in 38) for Caucasians, 0.1% (1 in 1,000) for Blacks, and 0.6% (1 in 167) for Hispanics.

Major risk factors for melanoma include excessive exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays, a history of sunburn, having fair skin, having a family history of melanoma, or having a weakened immune system.

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For this reason, it is that the findings of the new study, led by Eunyoung Cho, drew attention, since they linked the risk of developing melanoma with diet, specifically with the consumption of fish.

To reach this conclusion, the authors analyzed data from 491,367 adults in six US states who, between 1995 and 1996, completed a dietary questionnaire reporting how often they ate fried fish, non-fried fish, and tuna, as well as how much they ate. serving sizes (a standard serving is 140g). The average age of the participants was 61 years, and 60% were men (over 90% were Caucasian, 4% Black, and 2% Hispanic).

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Over the next 15 years, the researchers tracked how many people developed melanoma and found that:

  • People who ate the most fish (about 2.6 servings per week) had a 22% higher risk of developing melanoma compared to those who ate the least (0.2 servings per week, or about one serving every five weeks). Similar trends were observed for tuna intake.
  • The risk of precancerous skin changes (called melanoma in situ) was similarly increased among the group that ate more fish.
  • Interestingly, no increased risk of melanoma was found among people who ate more fried fish.

Is it safe to eat fish?

This is a doubt that we probably all have after knowing these results, fortunately, different experts agree that fish is not only safe, but also a fundamental part of the diet.

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This is because it is high in protein, low in saturated fat, and a good source of Omega 3 fatty acids, vitamin D, and other essential nutrients. For this reason, its intake is associated with different benefits, such as stimulating the development of the baby’s spinal cord and brain, strengthening defenses, and improving cardiovascular health.

Eating fish can also mean eating fewer harmful or dangerous foods, such as ultra-processed foods.

So what is the link between fish and melanoma risk? The authors argue that the presence of contaminants in fish, such as arsenic, polychlorinated biphenyls, dioxins and mercury, may be an answer.

There is evidence showing that a higher intake of fish is associated with higher levels of these contaminants within the body, and in turn, associations between these contaminants and an increased risk of skin cancer have been identified.

However, it is too early to draw definitive conclusions about the relationship between fish and melanoma. In principle, because despite the size of the work, there were certain limitations. For example, this was an observational study, which, while it can detect links, cannot prove them.

The researchers also did not take into account important risk factors for melanoma, such as sun exposure habits, a history of severe sunburn, or the number of participants’ moles, in their analysis.

Lack of diversity was also a limitation, given that nine out of 10 participants were Caucasian, so it’s not clear whether the findings apply widely to people of different racial and ethnic groups.

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Even the average daily intake of fish was calculated at the start of the study, assuming it persisted for the 15 years the study lasted, so it was most likely not representative.

Therefore, further work is needed to delve into this link in order to understand the mechanisms behind this possible relationship. Until then, health professionals recommend sticking with fish as part of a healthy diet.

Instead, you can choose to consume those options that are low in contaminants, such as mercury: anchovies, catfish, cod, crab, oysters, salmon, sardines, shrimp, and squid. Instead, eating shark, swordfish or tilefish should be avoided.

There is no foolproof way to prevent melanoma because some risk factors, such as age, race, or family history, cannot be controlled. However, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of melanoma and other types of cancer:

  • Limit exposure to UV rays.
  • Use sunscreen and clothing that covers most of the body.
  • Avoid tanning beds.
  • Pay attention to abnormal moles.
  • Maintain a healthy diet, exercise regularly and sleep properly, to prevent the immune system from being weakened.
  • Get regular medical checkups.
  • Sources consulted: US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), US National Library of Medicine, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Mayo Clinic, Harvard Medical School, Global Cancer Observatory (GCO ), American Cancer Society (ACS).

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