Fish and other forms of seafood have become a dietary staple in countries all over the world. In recent years, we've been able to understand the effects of seafood on pregnant women. Unfortunately, exposure to mercury and other hazardous substances, used in industries ranging from mining to petroleum processing, has made many forms of seafood unsafe for regular human consumption. This is particularly true for pregnant women, whose unborn children are particularly vulnerable to substances such as methylmercury.
It is important to know the difference between what is safe to eat, so that you can obtain the nutrients you need while ensuring that your child is born safe and healthy. There are alternatives to seafood, but there are also forms of seafood which are safe to consume – and they're such a rich source of so many vital nutrients that it would be a shame to turn away entirely.
Omega-3 fatty acids are vital nutrients that play a particularly important role in your child's brain growth. In fact, studies have shown that children who take in enough Omega-3 before being born show significant advantages in early cognitive development. Infants whose mothers had a healthy amount of Omega-3 in their blood throughout their pregnancy show heightened attention spans into their second year of life, while being as much as two months ahead of average cognitive development for much of their first year.
There are several fish which are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids which the FDA also approves as being safe to eat in limited amounts. Cross-referencing this list with that of fish which are relatively low in methylmercury content, we see wild-caught salmon climbing to near the top of the list. Also viable are herring, sardines, and farm-raised salmon, with the latter being a fallback if wild is not available. Always remember to cook your fish thoroughly, as this will reduce methylmercury levels.
Eating protein while pregnant is important for two reasons: first, as an expectant mother, it helps to modulate weight gain and keep you lean and healthy. Secondly, and particular to those who are pregnant, the amino acids which form the building blocks of protein are quite literally themselves the building blocks of the human body in turn.
Among those forms of seafood which are high in protein, both types of salmon once more top the list of viable options for women who are pregnant, nursing, or looking to become pregnant. Canned light tuna offers slightly less protein and Omega-3 content than other forms of tuna, but is also much lower in methylmercury (see below).
Eating plenty of protein, of varying types, is important to ensure the proper development of virtually every aspect of an unborn child.
Methylmercury is a trace compound found in aquatic environments, as it forms due to a reaction between mercury and aquatic microbes. Mercury makes its way into the global water supply from a variety of sources, including volcanic eruptions, the erosion of rocks with trace amounts of mercury, and the burning of fossil fuels. Methylmercury's effects on human health, as well as on the health of wildlife and natural ecosystems, have received heightened recognition over the last few years.
Methylmercury can pass through the placental barrier and enter the bloodstream of an unborn child. From there, sufficient concentrations run the risk of adversely affecting the unborn child's nervous system in a variety of ways. Fetuses exposed to certain levels of methylmercury are more likely to suffer from sensory impairment, learning disabilities, mental retardation, and microcephaly.
Shrimp, canned light tuna (not albacore, or “white” tuna), salmon, pollock, and catfish are among the best seafood options for someone who is pregnant. These are fish which usually offer lower methylmercury levels, which can be further reduced through cooking.
For greater safety, the FDA encourages pregnant women to limit themselves to one or two servings of 6 ounces of seafood each per week.
Other points to take under consideration include a preference for wild-caught seafood, and consuming a variety of different types of fish and shellfish (instead of the same kind each week). The FDA encourages pregnant women to consume a variety of seafood within a given week – as they are able – as opposed to dedicating their full 12 ounces to a single kind of fish.
Many species of fish grow throughout their lives. Older, larger fish are likely to have higher concentrations of methylmercury, and should be avoided by women who are pregnant or who are trying to become pregnant. Swordfish, tilefish, king mackerel, and shark are all fish to avoid, according to the FDA's webpage on mercury consumption and pregnancy. In addition, delicacies based on raw or under-cooked fish, such as fish which is only smoked, should be avoided, as thoroughly cooking fish will reduce its methylmercury content.
Remembering to maintain a healthy diet isn’t always easy, but the most important moments in life sometimes require a little sacrifice. Giving birth to a healthy baby is the ultimate reward for any struggle you may experience in your diet.
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