The Truth About Fish, Mercury Toxicity and Pregnancy
by Grace McCalmon
For many women, the day they find out they’re pregnant is the day they set aside many of life’s guilty pleasures. Those naughty no-no’s that can potentially be harmful to a developing baby, like alcohol, caffeine, cigarettes and fish.
Because of fears of mercury toxicity, radiation and other chemicals, many expecting moms have come to rank fish up there with a pack of Marlboros when it comes to pregnancy wellness.
But do you really need to swear off seafood for nine months?
According to the latest scientific research, you can tie on your salmon bib, because the benefits of eating high-quality fish during pregnancy far outweigh the possible drawbacks.
WHY ALL THE FUSS?
Fears of mercury poisoning from fish can be traced back to the 1970s, but people really started to pay attention and put down the tuna after Jeremy Piven’s infamous sushi overdose in 2009.
Since then, popular media has provided a steady stream of coverage painting fish as Trojan horses for mercury, PCBs and other nasties that could cause neurological problems and increase the risk of cancer. To make matters worse, the Fukushima disaster had people from California to New York fearing their fish might be glowing in the dark of their refrigerators.
This is scary enough for regular people, let alone pregnant women who have their unborn baby to worry about. It seemed the risks from eating fish were just too great. Why take the chance?
PROS > CONS
Fish is an excellent source of protein as well as iron and zinc — crucial nutrients for a baby’s growth and development and some fish, like salmon, contain more than twice your daily dose of vitamin D in just one 6oz portion.
Fish is also the best source of the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, which is incorporated into a baby’s rapidly developing brain during pregnancy, helping to form neurons and protect against oxidative damage. In fact, the FDA issued a report that showed eating low-mercury fish could increase a child’s IQ by three points.
EPA, the other omega-3 found in fish, is anti-inflammatory and both omega-3s help regulate the hormonal process (quite handy during pregnancy). According to the FDA, these benefits make such a difference they revised their fish consumption guidelines, recommending pregnant women, those who might become pregnant, breastfeeding mothers and children consume at least eight, and up to twelve ounces of fish per week.
“We’re updating our advice because the latest science strongly indicates that eating eight to twelve ounces per week of a variety of fish lower in mercury during pregnancy benefits fetal growth and development,” says FDA’s Acting Chief Scientist Stephen Ostroff, M.D.
WHAT ABOUT MERCURY?
Perhaps you’re wondering how fish can be so good for your baby’s brain if it contains mercury – a neurotoxin that’s been liked to brain and nervous system damage.
Enter selenium. Some research shows that this mineral may have a protective effect against mercury, making it hard for the body to absorb. These studies suggest that if you’re eating a food with more selenium than mercury, the risk of toxicity is low.
And guess what foods are some of the highest sources of selenium? Go fish.
WHICH KINDS OF FISH ARE SAFE?
Most of the fish we commonly eat have more selenium than mercury. See this chart for more info. However, nearly all fish do have some trace methylmercury.
At high levels, methylmercury can be harmful, and developing fetuses and young children can be especially sensitive. The FDA recommends eating a variety of low-mercury fish, like shrimp, pollock, salmon, canned light (not white albacore) tuna, tilapia, catfish and cod, and avoiding fish with the highest levels of methylmercury: Tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, shark, swordfish and king mackerel.
WHAT ABOUT RADIATION?
You may have seen reports or heard through the grapevine that fish were migrating from Japan and bringing radioactive isotopes with them. While no one wants to start growing a third eyeball, the widespread fear of radioactive fish is not supported by research.
According to a peer-reviewed study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a restaurant-sized portion of Pacific bluefin tuna contains about 5% of the radiation you would get from eating one banana. Yes, a banana. Apparently all foods contain some level of radiation, it’s the dose that determines whether it’s dangerous.
Additionally, research shows the levels of radiation now reaching California are so low they don’t post a threat to our health or environment. What a relief! (You can wipe that sweat from your brow now…)
AND ALL THOSE OTHER CHEMICALS…
Of course we always want to always be mindful to avoid PCBs and dioxins, which come from industrial waste and wind up in our food (yuck). But you don’t need to abstain from fish to do so. In fact, the highest dietary sources of these chemicals aren’t fish, but chicken and pork (34%), dairy products (30%) and vegetables (22%).
WHAT ABOUT SUSHI?
If you’re already en route to your favorite all-you-can-eat sushi buffet you might want to pump the brakes. Unfortunately these revised guidelines do not extend to raw fish, which can contain harmful parasites and bacteria.
The FDA recommends pregnant women only eat fish and other seafood that has been cooked thoroughly. Wump, wump.
WHAT IF I HATE FISH?
It’s important to understand that nutrients work together, so supplementing with them in isolation, like just taking plain fish oil, probably won’t have the same effect as eating the whole food source.
That said, we understand that there are some people – and many kids – who simply refuse to eat fish. This is why we include the highest quality fish oil in all our complete multi gummies, so you get a range of nutrients like vitamins A, D, and E, zinc and iodine, that work with the omega-3s to give you the best possible benefits.
INTRODUCING THE SMARTYPANTS PRENATAL
This leads us to our next point: whether you like or loathe fish, EPA and DHA, along with other nutrients like folate, are critical during and after pregnancy.
This is why we formulated a special gummy for expectant mamas that includes omega-3s and the specific type of folate that’s most bioavailable and most beneficial during pregnancy. Yay!
Know any fish lovers who are expecting? Share this with them!
What do you think? Stoked you can have seafood again? We’d love to hear in the comments below!
Posted on April 27, 2015
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Grace is a certified Nutritional Therapy Practitioner (NTP) and a graduate of Duke University. She received her nutrition certification from the Nutritional Therapy Association, and her training is based on the work of Dr. Weston A Price, as well as the latest peer-reviewed, scientific research.