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.
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
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
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.
The EPA and FDA advise pregnant women, young women who may become pregnant,
or women who are nursing:
- Do not eat: Shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish
because they contain high levels of mercury.
- Eat up to 12 ounces a week: Fish and shellfish varieties
that are lower in mercury. These include shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon,
pollock, and catfish. (An average can of tuna is 6 ounces.)
- Buy canned tuna carefully. Light tuna has less mercury
than albacore ("white") tuna. However, up to 6 ounces (one average
meal) of albacore tuna per week is safe.
- Check local fish advisories: Locally caught fish should be
checked with local health departments. If no advice is available, eat up to 6
ounces (one average meal) per week of fish you catch from local waters, but
don't consume any other fish during that week.
- Apply these guidelines to young children: They can eat
these low-mercury fish and shellfish. However, feed children smaller
- Fish sticks: Frozen fish sticks and fast-food fish
sandwiches are commonly made from fish that are low in mercury.
- Tuna steaks generally contain higher levels of mercury
than canned light tuna.