The Truth about Fish

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For many women, the day they find out they’re pregnant is the day they say goodbye to things like alcohol, caffeine, cigarettes and fish. At first glance you might not think twice about this statement but lets look at it again:


  • Alcohol – depressant
  • Caffeine – stimulant
  • Cigarettes – carcinogen
  • Fish – ???


People rank fish right up there with a pack of Marlboros when it comes to pregnancy nutrition. But do you really need to swear off the Chicken of the Sea for 9 months? Turns out, no. In fact, the benefits of eating high-quality fish during pregnancy far outweigh the possible drawbacks.


Why all the fuss?

In the recent past (especially after the Fukushima disaster) fish has gotten a very bad rap, with many believing it’s full of contaminants like mercury, PCBs and other chemicals that could cause neurological problems and increase the risk of cancer. This is scary enough for regular people, not to mention pregnant women who have their unborn fetus to worry about.


Saving selenium

One of the most well known “dangers” of eating fish while pregnant is the risk of mercury toxicity. However, what isn’t as well known is the protective power of selenium. Selenium binds to mercury and makes it hard for the body to absorb. So if you’re eating something with more selenium than mercury, you’re all good. And guess what foods are some of the highest sources of selenium? Fish!

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Which kinds of fish are safe?

Fortunately, most of the fish we commonly eat have more selenium than mercury. Fish that have more mercury than selenium include pilot whale, tarpon, marlin, swordfish and some shark. See this chart for more info. But most women won’t need to worry about cutting back their pilot whale intake…


What about the other chemicals?

Of course we always want to always be mindful to avoid PCBs and dioxins, which are by-products of industrial waste processes that get into 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%).


Fish = baby brain food

Not only is fish safe, it’s actually amazingly beneficial, delivering critical nutrients that support your baby’s developing brain. Seafood is the only food source of the long-chain omega-3 fats EPA and DHA. DHA is incorporated into the rapidly developing brain during pregnancy, helping to form neurons and protect from oxidative damage. One study found that pregnant women supplementing with cod liver oil from week 18 until 3 months postpartum resulted in higher mental processing scores at age 4 years, while the FDA issued a report that showed eating low-mercury fish could increase a child’s IQ by three points.


So how much should I eat?

The EPA currently recommends pregnant women of childbearing age, nursing mothers and young children eat about 12 ounces of fish per week, however, based on the new understanding about selenium, and the importance of DHA for fetal and early childhood development, you could probably do with a little more and/or supplement with some high-quality cod liver oil.


A note on quality

If you’re still nervous, I recommend focusing on eating the highest quality fish you can find. So that’s wild-caught, probably not from a sketchy, grocery store sushi counter. Canned is fine, and actually a very affordable way to get wild-caught, just make sure the can is BPA-free.


Brands I recommend: Crown Prince, Wild Planet, Vital Choice


-Grace McCalmon


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