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Which fish is safe to eat in pregnancy?

Is it safe to eat fish when you're pregnantFood is a bit of a minefield when you are pregnant or breastfeeding — you are trying your very hardest to give your baby-to-be the best start in life by eating a balanced, nutritious diet.

But with so much advice around, it can be difficult to know what you can and can’t eat.

One major minefield is fish, and in particular, fish containing mercury. High levels of mercury could potentially harm the development of a baby’s central nervous system.

So is fish safe to eat during pregnancy or when breastfeeding or trying to conceive? Which fish can you eat and which have high levels of mercury? How often should you eat fish?

Eating fish during pregnancy and breastfeeding

The NSW Food Authority surveyed women aged between 18 and 40 years to assess their knowledge of mercury in fish and associated health issues. 64 per cent of respondents were aware that some fish contain high mercury levels that could impact on the health of pregnant and breastfeeding women.

However, 44 per cent of these respondents did not know which types of fish contained higher than normal mercury levels. Some women questioned had stopped eating fish altogether, or reduced their consumption, when they fell pregnant or were planning a pregnancy because they were concerned about mercury levels.

Mercury occurs naturally in the environment and accumulates in the aquatic food chain. In other countries, it’s been found that pollution can increase mercury levels. However, most fish in Australian waters have very low mercury levels. Testing by the NSW Food Authority and NSW Health has shown no increase in mercury levels in fish over the past 10 years.

The levels of mercury found in Australian fish DO NOT pose a health risk to the general population.

Pregnant women, breastfeeding women, mothers-to-be, and children under six need to limit their intake of certain species to reduce their overall mercury levels.

Mercury in fish – the key facts

All fish contain some level of mercury, which occurs naturally in the aquatic environment.

Pregnant and breastfeeding women, women planning to become pregnant, and children six years and under should limit their consumption of the few types of fish which are known to accumulate mercury, and should:

  • have no more than one serve per fortnight of Shark (Flake), or Billfish (Broadbill, Swordfish, and Marlin) and eat no other fish that fortnight,
  • limit themselves to one serve per week of Orange Roughy (Deep Sea Perch) or Catfish, and have no other fish that week.

All other fish species are safe to eat at the recommended levels of 2 to 3 times per week.

Mercury is not reduced by processing techniques such as canning, freezing or cooking

Health benefits of fish

  • Fish is full of healthy nutrients and is an important part of a balanced diet, particularly for pregnant and breastfeeding women.
  • Fish contains Omega-3 fatty acids, which are vital for the development of the nervous system in unborn babies and young children, as well as iodine and vitamin B12.
  • Many fish contain high levels of Omega-3 and are safe for pregnant and breastfeeding women to eat. These include mackerel, Atlantic salmon, canned salmon in oil, canned tuna in oil, herrings, and sardines.
  • Research suggests Omega-3 is more easily absorbed in its natural form than in dietary supplements.
  • Fish is also high in protein and low in saturated fats.
  • Other fish and seafood that are low mercury levels include: prawns, lobsters, and bugs; squid and octopus; snapper; salmon and trout; Trevally; Whiting; Herring; Anchovy; Bream; Mullet; Garfish.
IMPORTANT: It is recommended pregnant women avoid ready-to-each, chilled seafood, such as raw sushi, sashimi and oysters or pre-cooked prawns and smoked salmon, to lessen the risk of listeria.

Fish is a very important component of a balanced diet and pregnant and breastfeeding women shouldn’t reduce their consumption – it’s just a question of eating the right type of fish. If you’re worried about what you can or can’t eat, it’s best to consult a health care professional.

 – this article was kindly supplied by the NSW Food Authority

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