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Pregnant? Eat More Fish but Proceed With Caution

Grilled Salmon

If you're pregnant, you may want to make dinner reservations at your favorite seafood restaurant.

According to a joint announcement from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration, American women who are pregnant don't consume enough fish.

The two agencies hope to rectify that with a new recommendation (currently in draft form) that pregnant women should eat between 8 and 12 ounces, or two to three servings, a week of varieties of fish that are low in mercury.

The FDA studied more than 1,000 pregnant women and found that most eat little fish. Roughly one in five had eaten no fish the previous month, and half of those who did eat fish consumed less than 2 ounces a week.

Stephen Ostroff, MD, the FDA's acting chief scientist, says in the release, "Emerging science now tells us that limiting or avoiding fish during pregnancy and early childhood can mean missing out on important nutrients that can have a positive impact on growth and development as well as on general health."

"In general, the types of fats that are used in brain development are more plentiful in fish," says Brandon L. Reynolds, DO, an adjunct professor in the University of Utah Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. "We know there's a connection between these types of essential fatty acids and brain development."


Beware of Mercury

The flip side of these health benefits is the risk of mercury contamination, which Reynolds says can negatively affect the developing fetal brain. The FDA recommends that pregnant women avoid four fish potentially high in mercury: tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, shark, swordfish and king mackerel. The agency also recommends they eat no more than 6 ounces of white (albacore) tuna a week. It says fish lower in mercury include shrimp, pollock, salmon, canned light tuna, tilapia, catfish and cod.

Utah women, in particular, should be wary of locally caught fish during their pregnancies, Reynolds says.

A 2013 article in The Salt Lake Tribune cited announcements from state regulators warning of unsafe levels of mercury in some Utah fish and waterways. Pregnant women and kids younger than six were cautioned about largemouth bass, walleye more than a foot long and pike from several area reservoirs.

"It really can happen anywhere," Reynolds says, but the hard part is figuring out why. "There are different speculations on why those specific waterways are contaminated. Everything from mining activities to rainfall levels has come under suspicion."

"We don't have a lot of definitive answers," Reynolds says. "Especially in Utah, there's an awful lot of mining, an awful lot of commercial production of products and things than can potentially pollute the waterways," he says.

Because it's so difficult to know exactly which waterways, which fish and how often to test, Reynolds says pregnant women should proceed with caution. "Personally, I recommend women not eat the fish from local waterways if they're pregnant or trying to get pregnant," he says.