I enjoy most fish even though I don't like those little bones and some fishy flavors (I'm looking at you, halibut). And because I'm concerned about exposure to toxins in my food and environment, I've given serious thought to mercury and radioactive contamination. While a lot of research remains to be done, I've come to the conclusion that the benefits of eating fish, especially during preconception and pregnancy, far outweigh any risks associated with potential contamination based on the information that we have.
Fortunately, there are many fish in the sea and there are many options for smart seafood choices.
Avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish which are carnivorous fish that eat smaller fish and accumulate mercury in their tissue at higher levels. As for other fish, I think most people don't eat enough fish to accumulate a toxic level of mercury. I recommend 8 to 12 ounces of fish a week for pregnant women - what might be eaten in 2 or 3 portions of fish weekly.
Avoid Fukushima flounder. I believe that the ongoing release of radioactive material into the Pacific Ocean from the Fukushima Nuclear Plant that was damaged in the 2011 earthquake in Japan is real cause for concern. We'll need to keep a close eye on levels of radioactive materials across the Pacific over the next several years. However, the good news is that the Pacific Ocean is large and that radioactive elements are relatively diluted and through the process of decay, these elements become less of a health threat over time. It is also worth noting that we live with a certain amount of radiation even without nuclear accidents.
Wild or farmed?
As a general rule, one should choose wild if eating carnivorous fish and farmed if eating vegetarian fish for ecological and sustainability reasons. You know which fish are which, right? Don't worry, I don't know either. Thankfully the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch has excellent resources to make it simple to choose when to buy wild or farmed and includes information regarding the levels of mercury.
Omega 3/Fish Oil Supplements
Omega 3 fatty acids are one of the supplements most recommended by doctors today. In order to experience the benefits of omega 3s, most experts recommend a considerable amount. I've seen recommendations range from 1000 mg to 6000 mg. There is a big difference between the lower and higher end here. Even when one consumes omega 3s from a variety of sources, that is a lot of fish, fish oil, and/or flax seeds to take in. In my experience, taking 2-3 teaspoons of fish oil a day does relieve nasal congestion, likely as a result of the anti-inflammatory properties of omega 3 fatty acids. Scientific research has yet to convince me that we know for sure what amount of omega 3 fatty acids is ideal for consumption during preconception and pregnancy or whether supplements are a suitable substitute for the real thing. So because I prefer to eat real food by default over supplements, I try to focus on getting my weekly 8 to 12 ounces of fish as a good source of protein that is often more affordable than supplements and almost always more palatable than taking liquid fish oil straight up.
My top picks
The following are my top picks for fish relative to low mercury content, sustainability, available omega 3 fatty acids, convenience, and taste. Using the guidelines above and resources listed below, experiment with different kinds of fish to get a variety and figure out what you like best.
- Wild Alaskan Salmon
- Rainbow Trout
- Albacore Tuna
A word on sushi, ceviche, and bottom-feeding shellfish
I am a sushi lover and I admit to having had sushi during my pregnancy, with no noticeable ill effects. I haven't eaten it nearly as often as I would pre-pregnancy, but when I have I get it from sources I trust. I've also eaten ceviche, shrimp, and other seafood options you might find on pregnancy no-no lists. I can't definitively say that it's okay to eat raw fish or shellfish throughout pregnancy, but I think it's also worth taking a closer look at where our food comes from and how it is handled en route to our table and making our own decisions regarding the food we eat. I believe that being an informed consumer is more powerful than complying with blanket restrictions that don't always have significant data to back them up. What do you think?
Real Food for Mother and Baby by Nina Planck