If you’re like most pregnant women, your sense of smell (and taste) has developed exponentially since you conceived. Foods you might have liked pre-bump now turn your stomach, and smells hit you like a brick wall. And for many women, fish—the odor and flavor—can be a turnoff during their nine months of incubation. However, both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) urge expectant women—and those looking to become pregnant—to eat more low-mercury fish in order to obtain health, brain and developmental benefits for their babies-to-be.
Research shows that one in five mamas-to-be in the U.S. eat little or no fish during pregnancy. These ladies are missing out on key nutrients needed for the proper growth and development of their babes. One of the biggest reasons women avoid eating fish is because they fear the mercury content. (It’s not like your fresh catch at the fishmonger comes with a nutrition label, after all.)
But with a little research (we’ve done most of it for you!), you’ll be hitting those recommended daily allowances like a champ. Here’s a guide to what to eat—and what to avoid—when it comes to creatures of the sea.
Despite mercury warnings, you’ve probably heard that fish is an excellent way to round out a healthy prenatal diet. But why are they so critical? “Fish is the primary source of the long chain omega-3 fatty acids that are important in the structure of the brain,” says Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE, author of The Overworked Person’s Guide to Better Nutrition.
As that wee bun bakes in your oven, she needs these specialized fats for neurological growth to take place. “Research also suggests that these fatty acids (known as DHA and EPA) from fish decrease the risk of abnormal heartbeats,” Weisenberger adds. A baby’s brain grows rapidly from conception until age 3, notes Jill Graybill, MS, RD, community nutrition educator at Spectrum Health. “Two-thirds of the brain is made up of fat, so it makes sense that the type of fat we eat and therefore give the baby matters,” she says. In addition to neurological development, she points out that DHA is an important element in baby’s retina development, which impacts her vision.
But there’s far more to fish than fat—both mom and baby reap rewards beyond omega-3 fatty acids. “Protein from fish is needed for the growth of fetal tissue as well as for mom’s breast and uterine tissue,” says Weisenberger. Plus, depending on the type, fish provides varying amounts of zinc, magnesium, iron and calcium.
Calcium promotes strong bones and healthy teeth for both mom and her little one. Iron is especially important for mamas-to-be as their blood volume increases dramatically during bump-bearing months. (Plus, extra iron can help prevent anemia— a shortage of red blood cells, which often occurs in pregnant women.)
Another benefit is zinc, which is important for growth and healing wounds. And let’s not forget magnesium, which is needed for blood-sugar regulation and muscle functionality.
Lastly, “Fatty fish like salmon are an excellent source of vitamin D,” says Graybill. “Research shows many of us are deficient in this vitamin, and for pregnant women, adding this may reduce the risk of preeclampsia. Research on vitamin D is promising for baby, too, as it may help reduce the risk of developing asthma.”
It might be hard to believe, but that fillet of fish on your dinner plate is packed with good-for-you (and baby!) nutrients that your hardworking body needs. If you can stomach the aroma, adding some seafood to your diet can keep you and your growing babe in tip-top shape.
Catch of the day
Now that you know fish is an excellent source of vitamins and minerals, you’re almost ready to hit the seafood counter at your local grocer or fishmonger. But first let’s break down the basics, so you know how much to eat, what’s safe to buy and how to prepare it.
The FDA and EPA recommend that moms-to-be, as well as women who are trying to become pregnant, eat between 8-12 ounces of low-mercury fish per week. That translates to about two or three servings. (The American Heart Association considers 3.5 ounces of cooked fish—or approximately 3/4 cup—to be a single serving.) To take the measuring and weighing out of the equation, opt for a piece of fish about the size of your palm.
As you plan out your meals and your grocery list, try sticking to these low-mercury options: shrimp, pollock, salmon, canned light tuna, tilapia, catfish and cod. The simplest way to remember what seafood you should stay away from is to pass on any large predatory fish, as these are typically much higher in mercury. Steer clear of tilefish, shark, swordfish and king mackerel. You should also limit your consumption of white (albacore) tuna to no more than 6 ounces per week.
Because uncooked fish and shellfish can contain harmful bacteria, it’s recommended that moms-to-be don’t eat any raw seafood. (Yep, that means most of the menu at your favorite sushi spot is off- limits.) When you’ve got a baby bump, you’ll want to make sure any fish you eat is fully cooked, which means nothing labeled as lox, smoked, kippered or jerky.
If you’re in the kitchen, your fillet should have an internal temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit. If you’re dining out, check that it’s opaque throughout. Shrimp, lobster and scallops should be milky white, and mussels, clams and oysters should be cooked until their shells open. Discard any that stay shut.
Adding fish to your weekly menu can have far-reaching benefits for both you and your baby—simply abide by safe seafood practices and reel them in without worry. P&N