In 2001, U.S. health officials had warned pregnant women to eat no more than 12 ounces of fish a week citing potential mercury contamination. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (FDA and EPA) also recommended that these groups avoid eating shark, tilefish, king mackerel and swordfish because of their high mercury content and limit albacore tuna to no more than six ounces per week.
Yet, a group of experts now say that the warning issued by these groups is wrong. The potential problems caused by mercury are nothing in comparison with the harm caused to developing fetuses from a lack of omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in many fish and are essential for brain development, they inform. Women should eat at least 12 ounces of fish a week, the group stresses.
"We found that the FDA/EPA advisory was scaring a large number of women away from eating any fish," Dr. Ashley S. Roman, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at New York University Medical Center and a member of the National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition was quoted. "Fish is an important part of a well-balanced diet during pregnancy", she added.
The new suggestions were presented Thursday during a press conference at the National Press Club, in Washington, D.C. The group included experts from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the March of Dimes, the National Institute on Child Health and Human Development, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"There is scientific evidence that fish leads to better outcomes in babies," says Roman. "It leads to better brain development, improved cognitive and motor skills, and some evidence suggests that it might reduce the risk of premature delivery and postpartum depression. Studies have shown that if you eat 12 ounces or more fish per week, you are doing better for your baby than if you eat less than that amount or no fish at all", she emphasizes.
The experts say that data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey show that 90 percent of women are eating less than the FDA-recommended amount of fish.
Another study has found that the FDA/EPA warning caused 56 percent of pregnant women to limit their fish consumption to levels below beneficial amounts, out of fear that fish may harm their developing baby.
According to Roman, women who want to become pregnant, are pregnant or are breast-feeding should eat a minimum of 12 ounces per week of fish such as salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel, without fear. For women who do not eat fish for several reasons, the researchers recommended fish oil supplements as a good alternative.
Eating fish is the best way to get the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), say the experts. Roman notes that selenium, a mineral found in some ocean fish, appears to protect against the harmful effects of mercury. "You have to look at fish as a whole, not at just one element in fish," she urges.
One expert thinks that not getting enough omega-3 fatty acids is more dangerous for an infant's health than the danger posed by trace amounts of mercury in some fish.
"There is a direct difference between these recommendations and the current FDA/EPA recommendations," says Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, an assistant professor of medicine and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. "This is a dramatic difference", he adds.
Mozaffarian says that based on the data, he would agree with the recommendations suggested. "The evidence for the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids in neuron development is at least as strong as the evidence for harm from mercury. Not getting enough omega-3 fatty acids is dangerous in itself", he stresses.
"I think these researchers follow the science," supports Dr. Gary J. Myers, a professor of neurology and pediatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center, in New York.
The only time mercury in fish has been shown to be harmful has been in industrial pollution in Japan, Myers adds. "There has never been another case reported anywhere else in the world related to fish consumption."