Top | Sift

One fish? Two fish? Less fish? More fish?

(article, Keri Fisher)

A recent study in the venerable British medical journal the Lancet revealed that pregnant women who eat more than 12 ounces of fish per week have smarter kids than women who eat less fish. 

This isn’t so surprising; fish is packed with omega-3 fatty acids and has long been considered “brain food.” Many children (my own included) even take fish-oil supplements to boost their budding brains. 

What’s surprising about the study is that it flies in the face of the current wisdom on fish consumption by pregnant women, based on a 2004 joint report by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration. 

The report urged pregnant women to limit their fish intake to no more than 12 ounces of fish per week and to completely avoid fish with high levels of mercury, like mackerel and swordfish. According to the report, high levels of mercury in the bloodstream can harm the developing nervous system of the fetus.

But the Lancet study all but rejects those claims, finding that seafood consumption of less than 12 ounces could actually be detrimental to children, resulting in decreased IQ scores and poorer developmental skills. 

According to Dr. Joseph Hibbeln of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, who led the study of almost 12,000 pregnant women over eight years, the benefits of increased consumption far outweigh the risks. “Advice that limits seafood consumption might reduce the intake of nutrients necessary for optimum neurological development,” he wrote. Furthermore, Hibbeln found no reduction in developmental problems among mothers who limited their fish intake to 12 ounces. 

So what’s a pregnant gal to do?

Unlike the EPA and FDA warnings that differentiate between fish with high and low levels of mercury, the Lancet study offers no such distinction. Still, the best way to safely increase your seafood intake is to choose fish that are low in mercury (typically bottom feeders, like anchovies and tilapia) and steer clear of fish with high levels of mercury (generally top-end predators like shark and swordfish).

And check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium's environmental ratings on sustainable fisheries; you can cross-check the Aquarium's list against the EPA's list for the best bets in sustainable and mercury-low fish.