Pregnancy fears about fish unfounded

Published on
October 11, 2013

Women should eat more fish, not less, during pregnancy, according to the results of recent studies. Research carried out at the University of Bristol suggests that concerns about mercury levels in fish may be unfounded, while the Nutrimenthe project reports that women who eat plenty of oily fish during pregnancy give birth to better behaved children.

The research at Bristol University found that fish accounted for just 7 percent of the mercury levels in the bodies of the 4484 women whose blood was analyzed as part of the university’s “Children of the 90s” study.

“We were pleasantly surprised to find that fish accounts for such a small amount, only seven per cent, to blood mercury levels,” said Prof Jean Golding, lead author of the report that was published in Environmental Health Perspectives.

Golding said that eating fish during pregnancy had other benefits for mother and child. “We have found that eating fish during pregnancy has many benefits for both mother and child. We hope that many more women will now consider eating more fish during pregnancy.”

Europe-wide research carried out for the five-year Nutrimenthe study suggests that mothers who eat plenty of oily fish during pregnancy could have better behaved children. What women eat during pregnancy and in the first years of a child’s life can impact significantly on his or hers behavior and intelligence in later years, it said.

In the study, which involved hundreds of families, scientists analyzed links between children’s cognitive, emotional and behavioral development, and their exposure to B-vitamins, folic acid, breast milk versus formula milk, iron, iodine and omega-3 fatty acids from before birth until the age of nine.  

Oily fish appeared to have a positive effect on the 18,000 children from whom data were collected. The high level of omega-3 fatty acids provided “building blocks” for brain cells and the iodine appeared to improve the children’s reading ability at the age of nine.

Professor Cristina Camploy of the University of Grenada, who lead the study, said that while a longer-term assessment was needed to verify the results, it was important to try to have good nutrition during pregnancy and in the child’s early life and to include breastfeeding if possible. “Such ‘good nutrition’ can have a positive effect on mental performance later in childhood.

“The brain takes a long time to mature and early deficiencies may have far reaching effects. So, early nutrition is very important.”

Campoy said that the genetic make-up of the mother and child can influence how nutrients are processed and transferred during pregnancy and breastfeeding. “This area is relatively new and will be challenging. However, future studies should include research on genetic variation in mothers and children so that optimum advice can be given.”  

While undoubtedly more research needs to be carried out, enough data have already been collected for governments and official organizations to reconsider the advice given to pregnant women on what they should eat.

For example mothers-to-be are currently warned to limit their fish intake because of the negative effects of mercury on fetal development. But, as a result of the Bristol study, scientists are already warning that these official guidelines may need to be reviewed.

In the meantime there is nothing to stop the seafood industry from emphasizing the positive effects of eating fish to expectant mothers and to encourage them to continue while breastfeeding their children.

It would be a welcome shot in the arm to get away from the negativity that seems to increasingly surround the industry.

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