The FDA has once again released new dietary guidelines for pregnant and breastfeeding women regarding fish — guidelines that have frequently changed over the last several decades. What are the new FDA guidelines for eating fish during pregnancy? The FDA has created a helpful chart to help consumers make informed choices.
Fish has a lot of nutritional benefits for everyone, many of which are also very beneficial to fetal development. But some types of fish also contain mercury, a neurotoxin, exposure to which can make adults, children, and infants very sick.
Most fish is very nutritionally dense, filled with omega-3 fatty acids and are a good source of protein, both of which are actually really great for supporting a healthy pregnancy and promoting fetal growth and development. Vitamin and mineral rich foods are an important part of a healthy diet for everyone, but especially pregnant women, whose bodies are hard at work trying to support the growth of a whole new person. But concerns about mercury levels in fish have long been considered a threat to fetal development.
While the changing recommendations can be confusing, it’s important to remember that mercury levels vary amongst different types of fish. Some kinds only have trace amounts, while others are packed full of it. Depending on what type of fish you’re eating, how much, and how often, the level of mercury will vary.
Mercury — also known by its more scientific name, methlymercury — has been shown to have a negative effect on the central nervous system, which can have a major impact on the developing brain of a fetus. Because of this, the FDA has gone back and forth for decades about how much fish — if any — pregnant women should eat as to not put the growth and development of the fetus at risk.
As with a lot of things in life, the risks and benefits had to be carefully evaluated. Scientists from the Environmental Protection Agency, who measure the amounts of mercury in different kinds of fish, as well as other researchers, have looked into both the nutritional benefits of fish and the risks associated with various levels of mercury. As a result of these ongoing investigations, the recommendations have continued to change.
The last time these recommendations — referred to as “revised fish advise” — were updated, the FDA suggested consumers aim for about 8-12 ounces of low-mercury fish per week. These levels were approved (even encouraged) for women who were pregnant, hoping to become pregnant, or breastfeeding. But these guidelines were also criticized, largely because they did not include information about the levels of mercury in various types of fish, which made it difficult for consumers to gauge the safety of their choices.
Now, the FDA, together with the EPA, has created a helpful, easy-to-read chart (shown below) that breaks down how to pick fish to eat based on how much mercury they have. They also slightly reworded their previous 8-12 ounce recommendation. The FDA now advises women who are pregnant or breastfeeding to aim for 2-3 ounces of several different types of fish per week, chosen from their list of low-mercury fish, or 1 serving from the moderate mercury list. They also include a list of fish to avoid altogether.
In order to make these choices easier, the FDA grouped popular types of fish into “Best choices,” “Good choices,” and “Fish to avoid," which makes it easier for women to make informed choices about including fish in their diets throughout their childbearing years.
Some of the best choices listed are shellfish like lobster, crabs, shrimp and clams, plus popular dinner options like haddock, salmon, atlantic mackerel and freshwater trout. Some of the once per-week choices include several popular types of tuna (yellowfin and canned white albacore), which have higher mercury levels than the canned light varieties (and are actually recommended under the 2-3 servings per week group), and fish like halibut, carp, and striped bass. Fish to avoid, including “bigeye” tuna, including marlin, shark, and swordfish, which have very high levels of mercury per serving.
These new recommendations are also for parents of young children, who certainly benefit from the nutritional benefits of fish but should be wary of having too much mercury in their diets in early childhood — which is prime time for brain development.
Fish is a tasty, versatile, and nutritionally sound option for family meals, and these new guidelines make it a lot easier for all consumers, whether they’re pregnant or not, to keep an eye on their mercury levels without missing out on the many benefits of fish. While the FDA is encouraging grocery stores and local fisheries to post these new guidelines for consumers, it might take a while for them to adapt to the updated information. So it’s a good practice for consumers to ask if they have questions about where fish came from, what kind it is, or find out where it fits into the recommendations — at least until they change again.