If I learned anything during my pregnancy, it was that eating fish can be utterly taboo. Time and time again, I was warned not to eat fish during pregnancy and lactation. While not the only dubious nutrition advice I received, it was, by far, the most common. Even the lactation consultant at the hospital suggested that I “maybe eat less of it”.
Early in pregnancy, I became quite familiar with fish and seafood guidelines. My body had decided that it didn’t approve of poultry (total bummer). And I seemed to have a super insatiable craving for tuna. After all of that, I’m here to tell you… Yes. You can totally eat tuna (most types anyway) and most seafood while pregnant.
Now, we could easily slip down the rabbit hole that is my rant on the crazy food rules given out during pregnancy and lactation. But I won’t do that to you. Instead, let’s talk about all of the reasons seafood should be celebrated. Here are all of the reasons you should eat fish if in fact you want to.
Mercury and Selenuim
The main concern with fish consumption is, of course, mercury toxicity. In recent years, however, scientists have discovered that mercury binds to selenium typically present in fish. But binding to mercury is far from selenium’s only job. It’s involved in many other important biological processes throughout the body. So, we don’t want to go using it all to neutralize mercury.
But what does that mean in terms of fish consumption? Essentially, it’s the selenium to mercury ratio that’s important here. And luckily, fish from the ocean usually contain more selenium than mercury.
To make managing mercury easy, FDA guidelines separate fish into three categories – “good choices”, “best choices”, and “choices to avoid”. Notice that most fish and shellfish fall into the “best choice category”. In fact, very few fish (such as shark, swordfish, and king mackerel) need be avoided altogether – and those fish are fairly uncommon.
Fish’s Nutrients and the First 1,000 Days
I don’t like to go overboard when talking about micronutrients. To me, a dietitian (and therefore devout pursuant of nutritional science), they’re fascinating! But an over-emphasis on them can sometimes lead to losing sight of the big picture – if you have access to plenty of foods and generally eat a variety of them, you are likely meeting your micronutrient needs. And there are a lot of ways to do that. No one food holds the key to “optimal health”.
So, I’ll keep it short here. Fish is packed with several nutrients that are key to a healthy pregnancy. Most notable is DHA, an essential fatty acid positively associated with cognitive development during the first 1,000 days of development. It’s also a good source of iron, another key nutrient during early development.
But what if you don’t want to eat fish during pregnancy and lactation? No sweat. DHA is important. But choking down a bite or two for the sake of nutrition won’t do anyone much good – and eating foods you despise is simply no fun. So, if you don’t eat seafood, your OB can help you choose the best prenatal vitamin to support you and your baby – most of them do contain DHA!
Taste Development During Pregnancy and Lactation
If you enjoy fish, you’d probably prefer your child enjoy it as well. After all, meal planning is easier when everyone eats similar foods. And sharing similar foods can help us feel more connected. Certainly, your child will develop his/her own preferences. And that’s ok! But during pregnancy and lactation there’s only one flavor option – mom’s!
Pregnancy and lactation are a unique time for taste development. Infants begin learning about flavors through amniotic fluid and later through milk. And there is evidence to suggest that flavors from amniotic fluid and breastmilk may be more readily accepted later. Simply put, if you enjoy fish, exposing your baby to its flavor may elicit a more enthusiastic response when you later serve it for dinner.
Fish and Early Feeding
Fish is a great food for early introduction. And not just because it boasts a ton of nutrients. Fish and shellfish are common allergens. Now, I know that may not sound like a plus. Many parents are hesitant to introduce allergens at an early age. And in fact, it was once recommended that introduction be delayed. But guidance has changed. It’s now recommended that allergens (excluding cow’s milk) not be delayed beyond the start of solids (around 4-6 months). In fact, evidence to suggests that delaying these foods may actually increase risk of allergies.
Of course, it’s always important to speak with your pediatrician before starting solids, particularly if your child is at increased risk. Children with high risk of food allergies may need to be evaluated by an allergist first.
Beyond monitoring your child for an allergic reaction (and calling your pediatrician immediately if there is one), it’s important to remember your purpose in feeding. From the start children require autonomy in feeding. That means respecting your child’s “no” even before they can say it. Avoid coaxing or tricking your baby into taking bites and pay attention to cues such as turning his/her head or pushing food away.
The purpose of this post is not to guilt you into eating fish. On the contrary, what I want you to know is that you can have seafood if you want to. And to eat every bite of it guilt-free. So, tune out the fish phobia – pay no mind when people tell you that you can’t have fish during pregnancy and lactation. Because they will. And you don’t have to listen.
Disclaimer: The information on this site is in no way intended to be a substitute for medical advice. It is intended for general informational purposes only. Always seek personalized medical advice and consult your practitioner with questions regarding your or your child’s health.