While some types of seafood provide wonderful nutrients for expectant moms and their tiny tadpoles, others range from slightly harmful to downright dangerous. It’s vital to know the difference, so take some notes and keep your little guppy healthy before and after his debut.
There are big-time benefits to eating the right kinds of fish during pregnancy—salmon, tilapia, farmed catfish, canned light tuna and sardines are all wise choices when consumed in appropriate quantities. Moms-to-be should aim for a total of about 12 ounces of healthy fish or other seafood (lobster, crab and American-bred shrimp are great too!) each week, divided into 3- to 6-ounce portions. Studies suggest that eating too little seafood while you’re pregnant can hinder baby’s fine motor, communication and social skills during childhood, but too much seafood can be detrimental as well. Because all fish contains some amount of mercury, a contaminant that can negatively affect baby’s development while he’s in utero, it’s best to play it safe by staying within the recommended boundaries and eating a variety of healthy seafood throughout pregnancy.
By sticking to the ground rules of safe seafood ingestion, you’re eligible for all kinds of nutritional gains. Elizabeth M. Ward, MS, RD, author of Expect the Best, explains, “Seafood is rich in vitamins and minerals, including vitamin D (for healthy bones and teeth), B vitamins (for energy production), zinc (for DNA and energy production and brain development) and iron (for building blood cells and more).”
Seafood is also packed with high-quality protein which, according to Ward, “supplies mother and baby with the amino acids they need to build body proteins, and as you know, there’s a lot of building going on during pregnancy and infancy!” Compared to other animal-based sources of protein, seafood is low in saturated fat and cholesterol; plus, it’s heart-healthy for mom.
What’s more, fish comes loaded with omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA, a mom-to-be’s best friends. Omega-3s help to build baby’s brain, form his retinas, and develop his nervous system; after birth, he may enjoy quicker development, lower risk of certain cancers, better eyesight and a longer attention span than a child not exposed to omega-3s in the womb. And baby’s mama has much to gain as well—these fatty acids reduce the risk of preeclampsia, postpartum depression and preterm labor.
Large predatory fish contain the most mercury and should be strictly shunned while pregnant and breastfeeding. As identified by the Food and Drug Admini-stration and Environmental Protection Agency, the top four fish to avoid are swordfish, shark, king mackerel and tilefish. These heavyweights are notorious for their high mercury content. Frances Largeman-Roth, RD, author of Feed the Belly, warns, “Mercury accumulates in the bloodstream over time and is released in breast milk. Even if you’re not pregnant right now, the potential for mercury to affect your fetus or breast milk exists for quite a while. High levels of mercury can be damaging to a fetus’ brain and nervous system.” In other words, avoid the big four if you’re breastfeeding, pregnant, or even considering getting pregnant at any time in the near future.
Other seafood choices that ought to be nixed during pregnancy include raw fish and shellfish (you’ll have to stifle that sushi craving for now!) for their bacterial and viral threats, fish liver for its dangerous vitamin A content, and refrigerated smoked seafood such as lox. Game fish (i.e., trout, bass and other local swimmers) may contain dangerous dioxins and PCB chemicals, which can cause brain and central nervous system damage, says Ward. So if you’re craving fresh fish from nearby waters, pay attention to the advisories in your area and avoid eating contaminated food.
While there is certainly some risk associated with eating seafood during pregnancy, Largeman-Roth says, “The benefits of eating seafood greatly outweigh the risk, as long as you avoid the four bad guys.” So when hunger comes your way, don’t go belly-up, go fishing!