Conflicting Messages on What to Eat When You’re Expecting

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Pregnant women often receive conflicting messages about what foods to avoid during their pregnancies. One of the most confusing health messages for women is the recommended guidelines for eating fish. In fact, conflicting reports about safe levels of mercury in fish have a majority of pregnant women eliminating the food from their diet altogether.

In a recent study, Nancy Childs, Ph.D., professor of food marketing at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and research colleagues, warned this decreased consumption of fish among childbearing, pregnant and lactating women, and young children is likely to have detrimental consequences to public health.

“It is conservatively estimated that 73 percent, or two million women, may not be consuming enough low-mercury fish during their pregnancy,” notes Childs. “By decreasing the amount of fish they eat, rather than just minimizing their consumption of the large fish, pregnant women are missing the advantages of this low fat, high protein component of a healthy diet.”

“There is much evidence that the consumption of fish, in particular, the n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease,” she continues. “Fish is also beneficial to the cognitive development of the fetal and infant brain.”

In 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration issued a joint advisory to pregnant and nursing women warning that excessive consumption of high mercury fish can have dangerous neurological consequences to infants and young children. Methylmercury, the toxic metal found in all fish, is present at the highest levels among swordfish, shark, bluefin mackerel, tilefish and tuna.

“It’s really about which fish, how much is eaten, and who is consuming the fish that’s important. The ideal message will encourage the replacement of high mercury fish with low mercury fish,” says Childs. “And until a multi-agency sophisticated consumer communication is developed, health professionals need to be diligent in educating their patients on fish consumption.”

Childs and her co-authors published “Review of Food Policy and Consumer Issues of Mercury in Fish” in the most recent issue of the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. Childs can be reached for comment at nchilds@sju.edu, 610-660-1643 or by calling University Communications at 610-660-1222.




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