Updated Guidelines on Fish Consumption for Pre-Pregnant, Pregnant and Breastfeeding Women

Fishing for advice

Fish consumption guidelinesThe importance of fish as part of a healthy diet—for any individual, at any age—cannot be understated. While many women know that, as well as warnings regarding mercury in different types of fish, they might not know that federal guidelines on seafood consumption have been updated. These may affect the diet of women hoping to be pregnant, already pregnant or breastfeeding.

Fish and seafood are jam-packed with vitamins, nutrients and protein and have been shown to reduce the risk of stroke, heart attack and may also lower blood pressure. Women who might become pregnant, who are pregnant or are breastfeeding should eat fish to pass along critical health benefits to their child, such as development of nerves, brain function and vision.



Passing the benefits of fish on to your child

To set the stage for a successful pregnancy (both for conception and fetal development), women who are planning to start a family should start a “pregnancy-focused” diet. This includes consumption of omega-3 fatty acids that promotes blood flow to the reproductive organs.

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Eating fish will provide your fetus and your breastfeeding child omega-3 fatty acids, specifically docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), to aide in the development of nerves, brain function and vision. Fish is also low in saturated fat and high in vitamin D (good for bone health), iron (to promote hemoglobin growth), zinc (for physical growth), protein and other nutrients that are crucial for a healthy pregnancy and fetal development.

Updated guidelines for fish consumption

For women who might become pregnant, are pregnant or are breastfeeding young children, many of the principles regarding fish and seafood consumption have remained consistent over the years. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently issued a joint report updating some of those standards.

The FDA guidelines still call for pre-pregnant, pregnant and breastfeeding women to eat a maximum of 12 ounces (2-3 servings) of a variety of fish weekly. Children should also have two or three servings weekly.

The FDA also continues to recommend that people eat fish low in mercury, as the neurotoxic substance (methylmercury) can gather over time in the bloodstream and could lead to damage of a child’s nervous system and brain development.

New FDA guidelines recommend minimum consumption of fish. Stemming from findings that 21 percent of pregnant women did not eat fish in the past month and 75 percent of pregnant women eat fewer than four ounces of fish per week, the FDA now recommends eating at least eight ounces of fish weekly.

What to eat

  • 8-12 ounces of fish and seafood weekly (2-3 servings weekly for children)
  • Consider seafood high in omega-3 fatty acids
  • Salmon—Atlantic, Coho and Chinook have higher omega counts than Pink and Sockeye
  • Mackerel—Pacific and Atlantic (not King)
  • Anchovies
  • Herring
  • Shad
  • Blue mussels
  • Pacific oysters
  • Fish low in mercury such as salmon, catfish, shrimp, cod, pollock tuna (light canned) and tilapia.

What to avoid

  • Fish high in mercury, especially shark, king mackerel, swordfish and tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico
  • Avoid varieties of tuna (Bluefin, Albacore, Yellowfin and Skipjack), except canned light tuna, which has a relatively low amount of methylmercury.
  • Raw seafood. Pregnant women and young children may lack immune systems strong enough to consume undercooked foods such as fish, meat, eggs and poultry, which are carriers of microbes that can result in foodborne illness.
  • Follow advisories for fish you or someone else have caught from lakes, rivers and streams; if no advisories are available, limit adult consumption to 6 ounces of these fish weekly and do not provide that fish to your children. 

Omega-3 supplements are a good start, but fish is better

Not everyone likes to eat fish. So supplements, such as fish oil that contain omega-3 fatty acids, can be an important part of prenatal care. However, many supplements derive omega-3 from plant sources and scientists have not yet been able to determine whether these types of omega-3 support fetal brain health.Unlike DHA and EPA that are found in fish, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is a third omega-3 found in plant sources. These are often found as flaxseed, edamame, sunflower seeds, canola oil, pine nuts and walnuts as well as in some green vegetables such as spinach, Brussels sprouts, kale and salad greens. These are important foods for a healthy diet and are vital for cardiovascular health, however ALA does not provide the same benefits for fetal development as DHA and EPA, as was previously thought. Milk, yogurt and eggs may be fortified with omega-3 fatty acids and are also considered important parts of a healthy prenatal diet. It is best to consult with your doctor before settling on the best prenatal diet for you.