My first pregnancy took place in two countries. My doctor in New York City handed me a "Fish List," outlining seafood to veer away from for the next 35 weeks. I wasn't surprised. Earlier that same week I’d tried (and failed) to do two other things that women in their first trimesters are urged to avoid -- get my roots dyed and go to the dentist -- and in the end, I opted out of all three. I figured, if eating fish was going to expose my unborn baby to toxins and pollutants, why chance it?
Then, when I was about 10 weeks pregnant, I moved to Rome. My Italian doctor never once mentioned eating -- or not eating -- anything. When I asked him about his "Fish List," he looked surprised and said, "Fish? Why are you afraid of fish? It’s good for you!" I had three babies in Italy (and also colored my hair regularly, but that’s another story) and started reading up.
The Rumor: Pregnant women shouldn’t eat a lot of seafood because it’s contaminated with stuff like mercury
Pregnant ladies in other countries eat seafood, so are we being too cautious, or should we send fish back to the sea until after delivery?
The Verdict: Eating fish during pregnancy is linked to better brain and eye development in babies
Ironically, fish is considered an extremely healthy food; it's low in calories, high in protein and packed with omega-3’s. The problem is the harmful chemicals -- most often mercury and pesticides -- absorbed by fish swimming in today’s polluted waters. This is where things get confusing and quite often contradictory.
Most sources agree that certain fish are more prone to soaking up pollutants: shark, king mackerel, swordfish and tilefish. So you may want to avoid those. According to Choose My Plate, the U.S. government’s nutrition site, pregnant women are also supposed to limit themselves to light chunk tuna once a week, and to only eat fresh salmon, never farmed.
Other experts say that pregnant women can eat 8 to 12 ounces of seafood each week, as long as they stick with varieties that are less likely to be contaminated: scallops, clams, tilapia, catfish, sardines, shrimp, king crab, sole, flounder and croaker. They're also advised to check with their state or local health departments' fish-safety advisory committee before eating any sport-caught fish. (This link from the Environmental Protection Agency is a good place to start.)
Why all of the hullabaloo? Because rumor has it that eating polluted fish while pregnant has been linked to preterm birth, miscarriage and the risk of both physical and developmental delays in babies.
That said, sources big and small have been singing a different tune for the past couple of years. New research says that the benefits of eating seafood while pregnant -- such as healthy brain and eye development in babies, and a lower depression rate for mothers -- outweigh the potential risks, many times over.
"Pregnant women do not need to be afraid to eat fish," says Jennifer Margulis, author of The Business of Baby. "Fish is a staple in both Japan and Norway, and women in those countries have among the healthiest pregnancies and best birth outcomes in the world. Fish is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which help a gestating baby's brain and nervous system, especially in the last trimester. Fish is also an excellent source of protein, which pregnant women need, and high in vitamin D and selenium." (Note: Research found that Japanese mothers who ate a lot of seafood during pregnancy had a 40 percent lower risk of depression.)
Bottom line: The solution is not swearing off fish while pregnant, it’s eating fish that are less likely to contain toxins. Anchovies, sardines and shrimp are all excellent choices for pregnant women. In fact, in 2011, the USDA recommended that Americans -- especially those who are pregnant or breastfeeding -- should eat more fish.
A study done in the Republic of Seychelles, an island nation near Madagascar, found that the kids whose mothers ate the most fish while pregnant had the highest verbal IQ scores. And in the U.K., the Daily Mail reported, "Women who eat fish during pregnancy are more likely to have brainy and sociable children, according to new EU-funded research."
The truth is, our knowledge of what’s healthy may evolve again in years to come. But for now, the science shows that fish is a powerful source of low-calorie protein with omega-3’s that can’t be beat -- which makes it prime pregnancy food. "Eating fish twice a week, or more, can help you have a healthy pregnancy," says Margulis. Just make sure it's the safe kind.