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Women's Health

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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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Fish and shellfish have gained star status on the dinner menu. Several medical groups now advocate tuna, salmon, and their fishy (and shellfish) cousins as important to a heart-healthy and overall healthy diet.

But for women, the choice has been less clear. The concern: Are fish and shellfish safe -- if pregnancy and children are in the picture? Could mercury in fish put an unborn, newborn, or young child at risk? Should pregnant women eat fish?

Various reports have turned up conflicting results -- some indicating risk, others pooh-poohing all the worry. To clarify this murky issue, WebMD turned to some of the nation's experts.

"[Pregnant] women should be cautious because their unborn fetus is very sensitive to toxicity from mercury," says Robert Goyer, MD, professor emeritus and chairman of pathology at University of Western Ontario. Goyer participated in a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study evaluating the credibility of the EPA's mercury studies.

"We came up with the same results the EPA did," Goyer tells WebMD. "We don't know which stage of fetal development is more critical -- whether it's the third trimester or the moment of conception, or if it's continuous exposure to mercury during pregnancy. But all this has been factored together in the EPA/FDA advisory."

Government's Advice to Pregnant Women

In their statement issued last year the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and FDA - for the first time -- cited the health benefits of fish.

"Fish and shellfish contain high quality protein and other essential nutrients, are low in saturated fat, and contain omega-3 fatty acids," says their joint statement. "A well-balanced diet that includes a variety of fish and shellfish can contribute to heart health and children's proper growth and development. Thus, women and young children in particular should include fish or shellfish in their diets due to the many nutritional benefits."

However, mercury may be harmful to an unborn child or a young child. Mercury may have damaging effects to a child's developing brain.

"It may be prudent to modify your diet if you are: planning to become pregnant; pregnant; nursing; or a young child," the EPA statement adds.

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