Pregnancy Information Center

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Fish Facts Every Pregnant Woman Needs to Know


Learn why you should eat fish and seafood while pregnant, and how to do it safely

By Rachel Meltzer Warren, MS, RDN


If you’ve been fishing around for a solid answer as to whether or not you should be putting seafood on your plate during pregnancy, you’re not alone — the advice on eating fish and shellfish when you’re expecting can feel as vast and mysterious as the oceans themselves. But the facts are actually pretty easy to understand, once you gather them in one place. Here’s what the experts say:


It Has Healthy Fats That Are Good for Baby 

When an expectant mom eats adequate amounts of fish, and possibly other seafood, her children tend to have better IQ scores and healthier brain function. The reason? Fish is a good source of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, which are crucial to the development of brain and retinal eye tissues. Mothers transfer these valuable compounds to the fetus during pregnancy and breastfeeding, says Nicole Avena, PhD, author of What to Eat When You’re Pregnant and an assistant professor of pharmacology and experimental therapeutics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. The research on whether or not taking omega-3 or fish oil supplements is equally beneficial, however, has been mixed, says Avena.


It's a Powerhouse of Pregnancy Nutrition

In addition to healthy fats, fish provides your body with good doses of protein, zinc, and iron — all nutrients that are crucial when it comes to supporting a growing fetus. The amino acids in protein are the building blocks of your baby’s cells and help support your muscles. Iron facilitates the movement of oxygen from your lungs throughout your body, and allows your baby to grow rapidly. Zinc also supports the significant growth that occurs during pregnancy and keeps your immune system strong. “Fish is also one of the only natural food sources of vitamin D, which is important for bone health of mom and baby,” says Stephanie Clarke, MS, RD, cofounder of C + J Nutrition in New York City, and author of The Happy, Healthy Pregnancy Cookbook.


It May Decrease Your Depression Risk

Research has linked omega-3 intake with lower rates of depression in adults and children; getting plenty of these healthy fats while you’re pregnant may also help lower your chances of developing depression during all three trimesters and after your baby is born. New moms who had higher levels of omega-3s in their red blood cells (an indicator of how much they’d been taking in) when they were 28 weeks pregnant, were less likely to experience postpartum depression, according to one recent study from Norway. In research from Japan, pregnant women who ate the most fish were nearly 40% less likely to become depressed during their three trimesters when compared with those who ate the least fish.


But Wait, There's a Catch ...

Methylmercury is a heavy metal found in the environment that accumulates in the flesh of fish. Fish take in methylmercury as they feed on plants and smaller fish. Mercury exposure is dangerous for all people, but it’s of special concern to pregnant women because this metal crosses the placenta and may impact a baby’s developing brain, hearing and vision, says Clarke. While mercury is the toxin you’ve probably heard the most about, like many foods, fish may contain other problematic compounds, such as pesticides, other heavy metals, and toxic pollutants from manufacturing and farming, like dioxins and PCBs, all of which can have undesirable effects, notes Avena.

Even with this caution, the experts still advise eating fish, as it has so much potential to boost your and your baby’s health. “The positive effects from DHA-rich fish outweigh the potential negative effects,” says Clarke. The key: minimize the risks. Keep the following considerations in mind when you’re planning your menu: 


    • How much fish you eat. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) suggests moms-to-be eat 8 to 12 ounces of fish and shellfish a week (around 2 or 3 servings), as long as it’s lower in mercury or has only a moderate amount (white albacore tuna should be limited to 6 ounces a week). Most of the studies on the benefits of fish for unborn babies’ brains consider just less than 12 ounces to be an adequate amount per week, so you’ll still be getting enough. 


    • The type you eat. Look for fish with the lowest amounts of mercury (not these fish) — generally smaller fish like sardines and anchovies but also salmon and pollock, also known as imitation crab. Farmed salmon seems to have far higher rates of PCBs than other fish, according to an analysis by the Environmental Working Group. The FDA also recommends that your 8 to 12 ounces per week come from a variety of fish. This maximizes the array of nutrients you’re getting and minimizes your intake of any one pollutant, says Clarke. For suggestions on which fish to try, click here.


    • Where you get it“It’s important to check advisories before eating fish from local waters,” says Clarke, particularly for freshwater fish that could have come from contaminated streams or lakes. If you’re not sure of the source, stick to no more than 6 ounces of that fish and make it your only fish for the week.


    • How it’s cookedBake, broil or grill fish, as those methods allow some fat to drain. Trimming visible fat from fish also helps cut down on some toxins, according to the Environmental Working Group (mercury, however, is one important exception, found throughout the flesh). Because fat is where healthful omega-3s reside, this may reduce their number along with the toxins.


Published on November 6, 2015.


Rachel Meltzer Warren is a NYC-area based nutrition writer, educator and counselor, and the author of The Smart Girl’s Guide to Going Vegetarian.

Reviewed by Shira Goldenholz, MD, MPH on October 22, 2015.
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