During the last three months of pregnancy and the first three months of life, the human brain develops with lightning-fast speed and finely tuned precision that will influence a lifetime. One of the most important fuels for healthy brain growth and development at this stage is omega-3 fatty acids, a polyunsaturated fat found in many fish and shellfish. This vital nutrient is so important that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have recently issued an updated advisory urging pregnant women to eat more fish and to make sure their toddlers do too.

Omega 3 fatty acidsAccording to the FDA and EPA, 20% of all pregnant American women do not eat any fish at all for long periods of time. Seventy-five percent of all pregnant American women consume less than 4 ounces (1 serving) of seafood in an average week.

In recent years, many people have removed seafoods (both fish and shellfish) from their diets due to concerns of mercury exposure. Some fish do harbor mercury in their bodies, especially the largest predators, but in most cases, the mercury is found in trace amounts that will do no harm if consumed in moderate quantity.

Mercury is a natural component of seawater. The chemical collects naturally in tiny microorganisms (such as plankton, krill, and sea algae) that live in the ocean. As these organisms are consumed by larger and larger fish up the marine food chain, mercury is ingested at every link in the chain.

Most seafood is safe for most people but the FDA and EPA do warn pregnant and breastfeeding women and their young children against eating just four varieties due to their high natural mercury content. These four fish to avoid are:

  • Tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico
  • Shark
  • Swordfish
  • King mackerel

Most tunas, including canned tunas, are safe to eat but pregnant and lactating women and small children are urged to avoid or severely limit consumption of the white (albacore) variety due to its elevated mercury levels.

The updated advisory from the FDA and EPA recommends:

  • Pregnant and lactating women eat 8 to 12 ounces (2 or 3 servings) of seafood each week
  • Young children eat 2 or 3 age-appropriate servings of seafood each week

Omega-3 fatty acids are available in supplement form and in isolated formulations of ALA, DHA, and EPA. These supplements do not contain other important nutrients, such as vitamin D, that are available in whole fish so they are not recommended as satisfactory replacements for seafood.

Plant-based omega-3 fatty acids are found in walnuts, sea buckthorn and other seaweeds and algae, and from seeds that include chia, flax, and hemp. The oils from these nuts and seeds contain omega-3s also but not the additional nutrients and beneficial fiber found in the whole food itself.

Source: “Fish: What Pregnant Women and Parents Should Know / Draft Updated Advice by FDA and EPA.” FDA: Food. US Food and Drug Administration.