Fish and mercury levels: should I be worried?

Fish is an important part of a healthy diet and has many nutritional benefits to the body. During pregnancy however it is important that you are aware of the rules associated with eating fish safely due to its links with mercury poisoning, such as deciding on what type of fish and the quantity that should be consumed..

Fish offers yours body much goodness; it is a great source of high quality protein, rich in iodine, Vitamin D and other important minerals, and contains high amounts of essential fatty acids. Omega 3 fatty acids in particular are an integral part of the development of your baby, helping with the brain and eye development.

Why can fish be bad for me?

All fish contain a substance called methylmercury and even though these levels are usually low, it is of concern when eaten as it enters not only your body system but your baby’s as well.

Mercury is a natural element of water, air and food and makes it way into the food chain by being absorbed by marine life, which is then eaten by smaller fish. Fish that are predatory in nature and consume other fellow fish, or fish of much older age, contain much larger amounts of mercury than normal. These are the ones that must be eaten with caution!

If you consume too much fish especially of the unsafe type, your mercury levels will rise too much and this can have serious effects on your baby. The mercury crosses the placenta and will interfere with the development of your baby, in particular the brain given that this part of the body develops rapidly. This can lead to:

  • Impaired cognitive development – Your baby’s brain won’t function as highly as others and if severe enough cause mental retardation.
  • Behavioural problems – Your child may have behavioural problems such as impaired concentration, impulsivity and personality issues due to interference of mercury to the development of the frontal part of the brain.
  • Developmental delays – This means that milestones aren’t achieved according to the chart and your baby may take longer in reaching stages such as walking and talking
  • Seizure disorders, if levels are extremely high.

What fish can I consume safely?

You can still enjoy and eat fish in pregnancy; all you have to do is follow the simple guidelines as listed below. These guidelines were published by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand and are specific to the types of fish available within our region only.

It is also recommended that before you fall pregnant or during the preconception stage, you should begin to avoid and limit your exposure to mercury. Breastfeeding however is safe; the benefits far outweigh any risks and levels of mercury found in breastmilk are not high enough to cause any harm to the infant.

One other thing to note is the safely of canned tuna, which is often a popular food inclusion in our diets. Canned tuna has lower levels of mercury than other tuna, and it is safe for pregnant women to consume 1 small can per day (95g) provided no other fish is eaten on that same day1. Fish oil supplement tablets are also perfectly safe and contain no mercury.

Fish should definitely not be avoided during your pregnancy, and above information should have provided you with great advice on consuming it safely.

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