Many moms-to-be worry about what they can and should eat while pregnant. Seafood is often a part of this conversation. I want to set the record straight on this point: Seafood is one of the best foods to fuel up on while you're pregnant. The benefits of fish extend both to mom's health and baby's development, yet it is estimated that almost 90 percent of expectant moms are not eating enough fish[i] (and more than half of Americans rarely or never eat seafood!) Current guidelines encourage all people, in particular pregnant and breastfeeding women, to eat two to three meals or 8-12 oz. of seafood each week.
As a dietitian, I encourage my clients to include a wide variety of seafood into their diet: canned tuna, shrimp, mussels, oysters, salmon, arctic char, calamari, etc. Here's why:
Why seafood is good for mom
Most fish and other sources of seafood are an excellent lean protein source, full of omega-3 fatty acids, low in saturated fat, and high in Vitamin D and selenium. Fatty fish intake of one to two servings per week has been shown to decrease the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease by 36% and decrease the risk of Alzheimer's, stroke, and depression, in addition to improving vision.
Why seafood is good for baby
Extensive research has shown that eating a variety of seafood while pregnant or breastfeeding is associated with improved cognitive function and development of the baby. Here's how it works: omega-3s (DHA & EPA) make up more than 30 percent of the weight of the fetus' brain and are a large component of the retina, and thus are essential for optimal neurological and eye development of babies. Omega-3 fatty acids are not naturally produced by the body, and conversion from plant-based sources of omega-3's is low in most people. The best natural source of DHA & EPA is fish, and eating fish rich in omega-3s during pregnancy and while breastfeeding helps deliver these nutrients to your growing baby.
What to keep in mind
Avoiding or limiting fish consumption during pregnancy may deprive a developing baby of key nutrients, which could lead to negative health outcomes. That said, there are just four fish moms-to-be should avoid during pregnancy or while breastfeeding due to higher Mercury levels than others: Tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, shark, swordfish and king Mackerel (also keep an eye on local advisories for freshwater fish). Fortunately, these fish are rarely eaten in the U.S. Another important update is that the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommended that the USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) re-evaluate their recommendation for pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers to limit their white albacore tuna intake. This decision was based on the committees' conclusion that the health benefits of seafood considerably offset the risks. Most health experts agree that the benefits of fish consumption (for everyone!) greatly outweigh any dangers, assuming they adhere to the recommended consumption levels. Furthermore, most PCB's (environmental contaminants) that humans consume are through meat and dairy products, not fish. Pregnant women should also stay away from raw fish due to concerns about bacteria and parasites.
How to add more fish to your diet
For a quick meal, fish is a great option! Most frozen or fresh filets can be cooked on a skillet in less than 10 minutes. When I know I'll be in a pinch for dinner, I defrost a fish filet in the refrigerator while I'm at work, and when I get home, I just throw it on a pan, steam some veggies and have dinner ready in no time! Shrimp are also a very quick dinner – just add them with some veggies in a stir-fry and dish it up over quinoa -- delicious and nutritious! Canned tuna is another easy and healthy source of protein that can be a great lunch or dinner staple. I often recommend mixing canned tuna with avocado and serving it in a whole-wheat pita with a side of veggies, or putting it in a salad. Sometimes I'll mix in some Greek yogurt, hot sauce, and mustard to add a little more pizzazz too. (For more recipe ideas, check out GetRealAboutSeafood.com.) When you think you have no time to cook healthy or prepare lunch, look to seafood as your healthy meal companion! Also noteworthy — when eating out, seafood is often the healthiest choice (assuming it's not fried) because it is innately a lean source of protein and typically is served with a vegetable.
Kelly Strogen, MS, RD, LDN is the Registered Dietitian for Club La Maison in Wayne, PA. She also consults with the National Fisheries Institute and writes for her personal blog Kelly's Pantry.
[i] "Consumption, Attitudes Towards, and Recommendation of Fish and Seafood and Impact of Draft FDA and Alternate Advisory Statements," Surveys of U.S. Adults, Pregnant Women, and Health Professionals. Presented to FDA Risk Communications Advisory Committee, FoodMinds, Nov. 3, 2014.