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What You Need to Know About Eating Fish

With concerns about mercury levels in fish -- a usually healthful food, how much fish should pregnant women eat? What other options provide the same health benefits as fish? Follow these guidelines to stay healthy.
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Undisputed Benefits of Omega-3 Fats

The omega-3 fats in many fish and seafood are known to lower risk of heart disease and benefit the brain. The American Heart Association advises at least two servings a week of fish like mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna, and salmon because of these healthy fats. However, the following people should take care to consume fish sources of omega-3 fats with lower mercury content: women who wish to become pregnant or are now pregnant; women who are nursing; and young children.

In a developing fetus, omega-3 fats promote brain, eye, and motor development, the EPA notes.

Pregnant Women and Big Fish Risks

The mercury in fish and seafood is indeed the big concern -- although there are other toxins like PCBs that have warranted some worry. Mercury exists naturally in the environment, but more is released into air, land, and water by trash burning, fossil fuel combustion in factories, mining, and the dumping of sewage sludge in croplands.

Once mercury gets into surface water, it quickly makes its way through the aquatic food chain. In smaller organisms, there is usually an insignificant amount of mercury. But as fish get older or as bigger fish eat smaller ones, the mercury content begins to build.

Fish at the top of the food chain - pike, bass, older or large tuna, tilefish, king mackerel, shark, and swordfish - tend to have higher levels of mercury, from one to 1 million times greater than the amount in the waters, according to the EPA.

If you're eating a lot of fish, mercury accumulates in your bloodstream over time. While the body naturally gets rid of mercury, it may take a year for the levels to drop significantly. Thus, it may be present in a woman even before she becomes pregnant. This is the reason why women who are trying to become pregnant - or pregnant women -- should also avoid eating certain types of fish.

 

For women wanting to switch to other omega-3 sources, there are options, says Julie Redfern, RD, a registered dietitian in obstetrics at Brigham & Women's Hospital in Boston. She has counseled thousands of pregnant or soon-to-be-pregnant women.

"It's one of those questions that comes up almost every day … mercury and fish," Redfern tells WebMD. "Some women are very well-read, and they say they are not going to eat any fish. Others say, 'I love fish,' and want to know what's safe. I give them the FDA's list of safe fish. I ask them what fish they usually eat, and look for it on the list. I also talk to them about canned tuna, about the different kinds of tuna - and what's on the 'avoid' list."

Overall, she says, "I feel very comfortable reassuring them that if they keep it to the 'safe' fish -- and eat no more than two servings a week -- they'll be fine."

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