The Final Verdict on Eating Fish While You’re Pregnant
Once there’s a bun in the oven, everything you eat and drink can influence your baby’s development. And while some post-conception diet upgrades are obvious, such as ditching alcohol and upping your fruit and veggie intake, others aren’t so cut and dry—especially when it comes to seafood.
“There’s still a lot of concern over whether eating fish during pregnancy is safe,” says Dr. Niket Sonpal, assistant professor of clinical medicine at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York. You want to eat enough fish to score the health perks for your baby but not so much that the potential pollutants mess with his or her development. As for where to draw the line, though, scientists are still trying to figure that out.
On one hand, omega-3 fatty acids, which are abundant in seafood, are important for brain development, says Sonpal. In fact, a recent study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology observed a link between eating more fish during pregnancy and an increase (of 2.8 points) in the children’s IQ scores. It also found that fish consumption can contribute to a decrease in symptoms of autism.
The most surprising discovery? The types of fish mothers-to-be are told to avoid due to high mercury levels—such as tuna and tilefish—were the ones linked to the most developmental benefits. What’s more, children whose moms ate an average of three to four servings of fish every week during pregnancy showed no signs that the mercury levels messed with their development, compared to moms who ate less fish. This could be because these types of fish also contain high levels of a compound called docosahexanoic acid (DHA), which may outweigh the negative effects of the mercury, the study authors note.
“There’s still a lot of concern over whether eating fish during pregnancy is safe.”
On the other hand, the study was strictly observational, and its findings don’t change the fact that high levels of mercury during pregnancy can adversely affect brain and nervous system development—therefore, pregnant women should still munch on the side of caution, says Dr. Sara Twogood, assistant professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at the Keck School of Medicine in California.
And according to a recent study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, eating too much fish may put your child at risk for obesity. Researchers found that children whose mothers ate fish more than three times per week during pregnancy not only grew faster in their first two years of life but were more likely to be overweight or obese at four and six years old, compared to babies whose mothers ate little to no fish during pregnancy.
“It’s difficult to pinpoint why this might be,” says Sonpal. “It could be because the pollutants in the fish are throwing off the hormonal balance of the child, which could then be translating into increased fat storage.”
Still, the link is not conclusive: The data doesn’t distinguish between fish types, cooking methods, where the fish came from, or what the mothers’ diet patterns were like in general. “I don’t think it’s necessary to jump to conclusions just yet,” says Sonpal, who recommends sticking to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) guidelines for now.
The verdict: “Although the latest research is thought-provoking, the results won’t change how we counsel pregnant women about their fish consumption,” says Twogood. If anything, it further solidifies the FDA’s recommendation of two to three servings of low-mercury fish per week (such as salmon, crab, shrimp, and trout)—any more or less could spell trouble.
“Avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish, as these fish contain the highest levels of mercury,” adds Twogood, and tuna intake should be limited to 170 grams per week (roughly one serving). “Pregnant women should also avoid uncooked fish and shellfish to steer clear of potentially harmful bacteria,” she says. (Translation: no sashimi or fresh oysters.) To keep potential bacteria and viruses at bay, all fish should be cooked to an internal temperature of 62°C, says Sonpal.
If you’re still worried about overdoing it with your fish consumption, try incorporating more plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids into your diet, such as ground flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts, and certified-organic canola oil, says Sonpal. Taking omega-3 supplements is another low-risk way to breathe easier. Phew.
This article was originally published on www.womenshealthmag.com