Fish contains vital fatty acids which are needed in the normal development of the fetal brain and retinal tissues, and normal neurologic development. Apparently women who ingest fish have babies with higher IQ scores, fine motor coordination, communication and social skills, and other benefits. Surveys have shown that most pregnant women do not eat adequate amounts of fish that contain the omega 3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA. New Advice has recently been issued by the Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency for pregnant and breastfeeding women. Pregnant and breastfeeding women should eat between 8 and 12 ounces of fish with low mercury content, each week. This is about 2 normal servings of fish per week. Shark, swordfish, tilefish and king mackerel have the highest concentrations of mercury and should be avoided. Too much mercury before and during pregnancy could theoretically damage the brain and nervous system of the developing fetal brain. The FDA advises not to eat more than 12 ounces or 2 servings of any fish per week secondary to risks from mercury.
Fish low in mercury and high in omega-3 fatty acids(fish oil) include: Salmon, Trout, Anchovies, Atlantic and Pacific mackerel, Herring, Sardines, Catfish, Pollock. Albacore tuna and tuna steak can be eaten but should be limited to 6 ounces a week. Canned light tuna has less mercury than can albacore tuna. Shrimp is safe but doesn’t necessarily contain the needed fish oils. Interestingly the McDonald’s and Burger King’s fish sandwiches contain Alaskan Pollock which contains the needed omega-3’s for pregnancy.
The FDA draft did not recommend taking fish oil supplements instead of eating fish. Studies with DHA and EPA or fish oil have not shown significant advantages for the fetus so far.
Bottom Line: Try to ingest 1 to 2 servings but not more of low mercury fish during pregnancy and breastfeeding. So far DHA and fish oil supplements have not shown benefits and may not contain all of the fish oils needed. If you obtain 2 servings per week of fish then you don’t need these supplements. It “probably” does not hurt to take these supplements however. I would not put too much stock in any one study, since so often they prove to be wrong, but do everything in moderation.
Keith Reisler- Author