How much fish should I eat during pregnancy and conception?

I’m a pescatarian, which means I eat fish but no other kinds of meat, and I would hate to give up eating it. For a start, it’s delicious! But more importantly, it’s really, really good for me, especially as I don’t get protein from other kinds of meat.

Eating more fish is one of the NHS website’s top eight tips on on eating healthily – as well as lean protein, fish contains lots of vitamins and minerals, omega-3 fatty acids and fish oils which help brain and eye development, reduce inflammation and help prevent cardiovascular disease. It’s just a great source of so much good nutrition.

As is so often the case, however, we humans have managed to mess things up by polluting the world around us – in this case we’ve polluted the seas with mercury and other heavy metals, mainly (according to Wikipedia) from coal power stations and chlorine production plants. The Wikipedia page on Mercury in Fish has a comprehensive table on which fish absorb the most mercury – tilefish, swordfish and shark are the worst and luckily they’re not commonly eaten in England. In general oily fish are higher up the table, and white fish are lower (but that’s only a rough guide).

The human body is usually able to eliminate this mercury, but it can be toxic to foetuses, damaging their nervous systems. This is a deeply horrible thought, and when you consider that raw fish such as shellfish are also not recommended as they can cause food poisoning, I imagine most people’s first reaction (and mine too) is to steer miles clear of anything that’s been anywhere near the sea.

We need to be really careful about having that reaction, though, because when I read more about it, omega-3 is really important for a developing baby – according to a 2007 study (summarised in lots of news articles at the time including on the BBC and Guardian websites) it boosts intellect, improves social skills and even benefits eyesight, among lots of other things. Plus, there are all the vitamins, minerals and proteins to consider – all of these are good for nourishing a baby, and we all know that it’s much more effective to get them through diet rather than supplements.

All this conflicting information might seem very confusing, but actually it’s in line with what the usual sources of information on diet during pregnancy recommend – you should carry on eating fish, but in moderation. The brilliantly thorough NHS webpage on fish and shellfish sums this up, and I’m going to paste a big chunk of it here so you have it to hand:

“Eating fish is good for your health and the development of your baby. But pregnant women should avoid some types of fish and limit the amount they eat of some others.

When pregnant, you can reduce your risk of food poisoning by avoiding raw shellfish. Below is advice from the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition and the Committee on Toxicity about eating fish when trying to get pregnant, or when pregnant or breastfeeding:

  • Shark, swordfish and marlin: do not eat these if you are pregnant or trying to get pregnant. All other adults, including breastfeeding women, should eat no more than one portion per week. This is because these fish can contain more mercury than other types of fish, and this can damage a developing baby’s nervous system.
  • Oily fish: if you are trying for a baby, pregnant or breastfeeding, you should have no more than two portions of oily fish a week. A portion is around 140 grams.
  • Canned tuna: if you are trying for a baby or are pregnant, you should have no more than four cans of tuna a week. This is because tuna contains higher levels of mercury than other fish. If you are breastfeeding, there is no limit on how much canned tuna you can eat.

Even though I’m still not pregnant yet (*sob*) I’m trying to get into these good habits now so I’m ready to enjoy a healthy and safe pregnancy diet.

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