By Erin Sund
Does eating seafood while pregnant seem fishy? You're not alone in thinking so. Pregnant women are bombarded with lists of things they can't eat, and misinformation about seafood abounds. But the truth is that pregnant women can and should eat fish (with a few exceptions).
Why Eat Fish?
It's true that not all fish is safe for pregnant women, but avoiding seafood can be detrimental too. Pregnant women should aim to eat eight to 12 ounces of safe seafood a week. Here's why.
Fish is full of protein and iron. Pregnant women need at least 27 milligrams of iron a day (up from 18 milligrams pre-pregnancy) to help prevent anemia, and 71 grams of protein daily (up from 46 grams) to support the baby's growth and a woman's own physical changes. "Soon-to-be mothers need to make sure they're getting adequate amounts of protein during pregnancy," says Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Spokesperson Jessica Crandall, RD, CDE. "Fish is encouraged because it's a great source of both protein and iron."
You and your baby need omega-3 fatty acids. Oily fish like wild salmon and sardines are high in Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a type of omega-3 fatty acid. "Omega-3 fatty acids are helpful with decreasing inflammation and also help with infant brain development," says Crandall. "Eating omega-3-rich proteins like fish is very healthy for pregnant women."
Food aversions may narrow your diet. Expectant mothers should eat a wide variety of healthy foods, but pregnancy may limit your food tolerances. Fish is a nutrient-rich food, and expectant mothers should add it to their diets if it appeals to them.
Because omega-3 fatty acids are so important for your baby's development, Crandall recommends talking to your doctor to see if you should take a fish or flaxseed oil supplement if you cannot tolerate fish. "I always choose food as the first line of action, but a supplement can be helpful for those women not eating an adequate amount of omega-3."
What Fish Is Safe?
Avoid seafood high in methyl mercury and other environmental toxins when pregnant. "Methyl mercury can damage brain, kidney and central nervous system development of the fetus," says Crandall. "It is a toxic chemical and it builds up most commonly in predatory species of fish. The chemical passes through the placenta and may harm the fetus."
Mercury is both naturally occurring in our environment and also results from industrial pollution. When it falls from the air and accumulates in water, it becomes methyl mercury. Some fish accumulate more methyl mercury than others, depending on their diet, habitat, size and longevity. Here's what seafood to eat, and what to avoid.
Seafood to Eat and to Avoid
Eight to 12 ounces per week
Up to 6 ounces per week
- Salmon (excluding that from the Atlantic)
- Canned light tuna
- Albacore or "white" tuna
- Atlantic salmon
- King Mackerel
- Raw fish (including sushi, sashimi, ceviche and carpaccio)
- Refrigerated smoked seafood
Cook Quality Fish
It's always good to know where your seafood comes from, but it's especially important when pregnant. It is safe to consume up to 12 ounces a week of wild salmon, for example, but Atlantic salmon is safe only up to 6 ounces a week.
Also ask if your fish is farm raised or line caught. "Farm-raised fish has less potential contaminants, but it may be corn fed, so the nutrients may not be as high," says Crandall.
Check local advisories for food safety alerts before eating locally caught fish. When in doubt, limit your consumption of local seafood to 6 ounces a week.
Quality fish has these characteristics:
- Bright, clear eyes
- Intact scales
- A fresh or mild salt water scent
- Firm to the touch with flesh that springs back when pressed
- Cold (39°F) with no ice crystals
Refrigerate fish quickly after purchase, consume it within a day or two of purchase, and cook it to an internal temperature of about 145ºF to reduce your risk of food poisoning. Enjoy fish and the nutritional boost it provides you and your growing baby.
Reviewed April 2013
Erin Sund is an online content manager for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.