Seafood is often promoted as “brain food” but mercury—found in nearly all varieties of fish and shellfish—can harm unborn babies and newborns. The solution isn’t for pregnant women to give up seafood altogether, but rather to be selective about which seafood they choose and how much of it they eat. For instance, salmon has the highest level of DHA—an omega-3 fatty acid that's essential for healthy brain development— and is one of the least contaminated varieties of fish.
Studies have shown that high levels of mercury can damage the nervous system, kidneys, and liver of unborn babies, so some concern is warranted. However, in addition to salmon, there are other low risk fish that contain important nutrients, protein, and omega-3 fatty acids that are important to developing fetuses and pregnant moms.
Fortunately, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have issued recommendations for pregnant women that set some clear and specific goals for seafood consumption that support healthy eating while limiting the risk of harm.
When considering which and how much fish to eat, remember:
- Eat 2–3 servings (about 12 ounces) of a variety of lower-mercury fish per week. Those that are commonly available include salmon, shrimp, Pollock, tuna (light canned), tilapia, catfish, and cod.
- Avoid the four highest-mercury fish. Tilefish, shark, swordfish, and king mackerel should not be consumed in any quantities by pregnant women.
- Limit white (albacore) tuna to no more than 6 ounces per week. Other canned tuna is not subject to this limitation.
- Do your research before eating local fish. Check for fish advisories issued by the appropriate authority, usually the local wildlife or health department. If you can’t find any information, limit adult consumption of locally caught fish to 6 ounces a week.
- Avoid eating raw or partially cooked seafood, including smoked or cold-smoked products. Heat all seafood to 145°F for at least 15 seconds.
- Skip the sushi. Don’t eat raw fish (including sushi, sashimi, oysters, clams, or mussels) or foods made with raw fish. Raw fish are more likely to contain parasites or bacteria, as compared to cooked fish.
- Eat fish part of a well-balanced diet that meets your nutritional needs. For more on healthy diet guidance, visit the Choose My Plate website.
Stay informed, but rest assured that the risks of consuming limited amounts of low-risk fish are outweighed by the health benefits.