Many pregnant and breastfeeding women are hesitant to indulge in sushi or a tuna sandwich because of mercury levels, but how valid are their concerns? It’s difficult to say because advice on the matter is murky at best. Some organizations, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), actually encourage breastfeeding mothers and expectant mothers to eat more fish. In 2014, the FDA and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) updated their guidelines to recommend that pregnant and breastfeeding women, as well as women trying to conceive, consume more low-mercury seafood to get omega-3 fatty acids, which help babies’ development. The FDA and EPA recommend eating 8-12 ounces of low-mercury fish or shellfish per week. And a study from the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the benefits of seafood outweigh the negative effects of mercury.
But organizations such as the Environmental Working Group (EWG) say these updated guidelines have the potential to expose women and their babies to unsafe mercury levels. The EWG conducted a study of its own to determine mercury levels in women who consumed the government’s recommended amount of seafood.
Nearly 3 in 10 women had mercury levels that were higher than the Environmental Protection Group says is safe. The frequent seafood eaters had an average of 11 times more mercury in their bodies than those who rarely consume fish.
The EWG’s study found that most of the mercury toxin in the women’s bodies was the result of fish the government says is safe to eat in moderation including tuna steaks and tuna sushi. The EWG says women should still be consuming seafood in general because of the omega-3 benefits, but the organization wants the FDA and EPA to update their recommendations to include a full list of low-mercury, high omega-3 options (e.g., salmon). The EWG also wants the government to provide more education to women about the negative effects of mercury on their babies and to recommend avoiding high-mercury seafood even up to a year before conception. This includes sea bass, halibut and Marlin.
At Integrative Nutrition, we believe in Bio-Individuality, which means choosing whatever diet works best for you, but if you’re a fish eater it never hurts to educate yourself on safe seafood consumption. Here are some tips to help:
Consider your weight
Safe levels of mercury consumption depend on your weight, as well as whether you’re pregnant. If you’re unsure how much mercury you may be consuming, check out EWG's seafood calculator to get an estimate.
Choose high omega-3 options
Select seafood options that are high in omega-3s and low in mercury such as wild salmon, rainbow trout, sardines and mussels. According to EWG, one or two four-ounce servings a week of these fish are great for pregnant or nursing women. Oysters and imitation crab are also good bets. Shrimp, although low in mercury, is also low in omega-3s.
Educate yourself about high-mercury fish
Especially if you’re pregnant, you’ll want to avoid too much lobster, tuna and sea bass, as well as the super-high mercury levels of swordfish and shark.
Choose wild vs. farmed
Harvard researchers have found that farmed seafood can have up to 10 times more toxins than wild fish. Some safe choices are wild Alaskan salmon, Alaska Pollok, Atlantic cod, clams and rainbow trout, to name a few. And steer clear of tilapia if you can. Eat This, Not That reports that tilapia is “worse than bacon” because the fish is raised on a poor diet and has low amounts of omega-3s compared with many other seafood options.
The bottom line? Everything should be enjoyed in moderation.
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