Is Eating Fish During Pregnancy Safe?
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Let’s clear the murky waters: Seafood, which includes fish and shellfish, is a wonderful, highly nutritious, heart-healthy food choice to enjoy...and that's especially so during pregnancy! (As long as you don’t have a seafood allergy, of course.) Research shows that eating a fish during pregnancy may boost your baby's brain development, help stave off metabolic diseases, like type 2 diabetes, and may even improve your kiddo’s future IQ. But even with all of that, a lot of moms-to-be receive confusing or conflicting guidance on eating fish during pregnancy. So, if you’re asking yourself questions like, Can I have fish while pregnant? Is sushi safe during pregnancy? Can I eat tuna while pregnant? Or What fish isn’t safe during pregnancy?, you’re in luck! Here, everything you need to know about eating fish during pregnancy, so you and your baby get all the benefits—safely.
Health Benefits of Eating Fish During Pregnancy
Seafood offers so many must-have nutrients for expecting mothers and developing babies. Depending on the type of fish, you’ll find varying amounts of good stuff like protein, healthy fats, vitamin D, calcium, iodine, and iron…all important nutrients that pregnant folks need more of. Here’s why they’re important:
Fish helps prevent anemia during pregnancy.
Iron is a key nutrient that helps red blood cells deliver oxygen to your baby, which buoys their growth and brain development. But because you need double the amount of iron than you used to, iron deficiency anemia during pregnancy is quite common—and it can put you and your baby at a higher risk for complications, like preterm birth and low birth weight. Plus, an infant’s iron status from birth to 6 months old is entirely dependent on Mom’s iron intake while pregnant. Iron-rich seafood like clams, mussels, oysters, salmon, sardines, and shrimp can really help with prevention.
Healthy fats in fish aid baby’s brain development.
Fish is chock-full of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, like EPA and DHA, which are vital for your baby’s brain growth and function during pregnancy. And research shows that a higher intake of omega-3-rich fish during pregnancy is associated with a reduced risk of preterm birth and low birth weight. While you can get omega-3s from other eats, fish is the richest food source of EPA and DHA. Some pregnancy-safe options include anchovies, halibut, herring, mackerel, rainbow trout, salmon, sardines, and canned light, albacore, and yellowfin tuna. (See below for how-much-to-eat guidance.)
Iodine is crucial for baby’s speech and hearing.
The oft forgotten mineral iodine is responsible for maintaining good thyroid function, helping with your baby’s overall growth and their brain, speech, and hearing development. Iodine is so vital, in fact, that severely low levels can lead to significant pregnancy complications, such as hypothyroidism and neurological damage. While the average adult needs 150 micrograms of iodine daily, that bumps to 220 for those who are pregnant. Good thing pregnancy-safe cod, scallops, shrimp, and canned light, albacore, and yellowfin tuna are all brimming with iodine.
Fish is a healthy lean protein.
When pregnant, you need between 70 and 100 grams of protein a day...which is a lot more than your pre-pregnancy requirement of about 46 grams daily. Protein is essential for your baby-to-be’s cell growth and function, which means they simply can’t make hair, skin, nails, muscles, organs, tissues, and more without protein. (Plus, protein may also help your breast and uterine tissue grow during pregnancy.) But not all protein is the same. It’s best to swap much of your red and processed meats, which are high in saturated fat, for lean proteins, such as, you guessed it…seafood.
Fish has vitamin D and calcium that support baby’s bones and teeth.
Vitamin D and calcium are crucial nutrients that depend on one another to support healthy bones and teeth—even in utero. (Vitamin D is necessary for immune health, too.) But unfortunately, vitamin D deficiency is common during pregnancy, especially among vegetarians, moms-to-be who live with limited sun exposure, and those with darker skin, notes The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecology (ACOG). While few foods naturally contain vitamin D, fish bones in canned fish are loaded with vitamin D and calcium—and are often soft and easy to eat. Some D- and calcium-rich choices include herring, perch, rainbow trout, sardines, salmon, and tuna (light and skipjack).
The Risks of Eating Fish During Pregnancy
There’s a lot of fish in the sea, as they say, and some are among the foods to avoid during pregnancy. Nearly all fish contain some mercury, a heavy metal that can be harmful to the brain, spine, and nervous system of a developing baby, leading to toxicity and birth abnormalities. That’s why it’s important to eat low-mercury fish during pregnancy. (More on that below.) At the same time, it's harder for an expecting mom's immune system to fight off infections. Because of this, you should avoid raw, undercooked, and cold-smoked fish to reduce your risk of infection from harmful germs, parasites, and bacteria, including Listeria. And know that seafood labeled nova style, lox, or kippered fall into this not-safe category. That said, it is okay to eat smoked seafood if it’s an ingredient in a cooked dish. And canned and shelf-stable versions of these fish are also okay.
What Fish is Recommended During Pregnancy
ACOG, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency all agree that pregnant individuals should strive for 2 to 3 servings a week of a variety of fish. That shakes out to 8 to 12 ounces in total. But there are guidelines to ensure mercury levels are low, bacteria are kept to a minimum, and mom and baby reap all the rewards without any drawbacks. Here’s a list of safe fish during pregnancy:
Safe Fish During Pregnancy
These are low mercury fish than can—and should—be consumed 2 to 3 times a week:
- Canned light tuna
- Skipjack tuna
- Freshwater trout
Safe Once-a-Week Fish During Pregnancy
Eat no more than 6 ounces of the following options a week:
- Albacore (white) tuna
- Chilean sea bass
- Mahi mahi
- Striped bass (ocean)
- Yellowfin tuna
Unsafe Fish During Pregnancy
These picks clock the highest mercury levels or are served raw and should be avoided during pregnancy:
- Bigeye tuna
- Cold-smoked salmon
- King mackerel Sushi
- Orange roughy
For a complete list of fish that are safe to eat in pregnancy, see the FDA website.
Safest Way to Eat Fish and Shellfish During Pregnancy
The best fish to eat while pregnant should be low in mercury and thoroughly cooked to be safe. You know your fish is safe when it’s reached an internal temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit or 62.8 degrees Celsius. (Clams, mussels, and oysters are not fully cooked until their shells open.) It’s also important to remember what a serving size looks like. A typical portion size of fish is 4 ounces, which is the same size and thickness as the palm of your hand.
Tasty Ways to Eat Fish During Pregnancy
Stuck on how to get all of the fish you need in? Hopefully, these meal ideas will help:
Homemade salmon patties with sweet potato fries
Tuna salad and whole wheat pita
Shrimp puttanesca over whole wheat pasta
Grilled shrimp or canned salmon over an arugula salad
Air-fried garlic tilapia with roasted potatoes and asparagus
Baked lemon butter cod with steamed broccoli and wheat pasta
Fish tacos made with grilled or blackened tilapia with mango black bean salad
Whole wheat spaghetti with canned tuna and olives
Oven-baked or air-fried cod and chips
Mussels and clams in marinara over whole grain pasta
More Healthy Eating Tips During Pregnancy:
- Why Folic Acid Is So Important
- Healthy Foods to Satisfy Pregnancy Cravings
- Must-Have Nutrients for Vegetarian Pregnancies
- Smoothie Add-Ins for a Healthier Pregnancy
- The Truth About Caffeine During Pregnancy
- Perinatal Nutrition Impacts on the Functional Development of the Visual Tract in Infants, Pediatric Research, September 2018
- Association of Fish Consumption and Mercury Exposure During Pregnancy With Metabolic Health and Inflammatory Biomarkers in Children, JAMA, March 2020
- Fish Consumption During Pregnancy, JAMA Pediatrics, September 2018
- Iron Deficiency Anemia in Pregnancy: Novel Approaches for an Old Problem, Oman Medical Journal, September 2020
- Omega-3 Fatty Acid Addition During Pregnancy, The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, November 2018
- Iodine Nutrition During Pregnancy: Past, Present, and Future, Biological Trace Element Research, September 2018
- National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplement: Iodine Fact Sheet for Consumers
- Vitamin D: Screening and Supplementation During Pregnancy, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists Committee Opinion, July 2011
- American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: Listeria and Pregnancy
- Mayo Clinic: Pregnancy Week by Week
- Food and Drug Administration: Advice About Eating Fish for Those Who Might Become or Who Are Pregnant or Breastfeeding and Children Ages 1 – 11 Years
- USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service: Safe Minimum Internal Temperature Chart
- Food and Drug Administration: Questions & Answers from the FDA/EPA Advice about Eating Fish for Those Who Might Become or Are Pregnant or Breastfeeding and Children Ages 1 to 11 Years
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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.