FRIDAY, Oct. 5, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- Since 2001, when U.S. health officials warned pregnant women to eat no more than 12 ounces of fish a week because of potential mercury contamination, many women have been confused, and fish consumption has dropped.
Now, a group of experts says that that warning by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was misguided. The potential problems caused by mercury pale in comparison with the harm caused to developing fetuses from a lack of omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in many fish and are essential for brain development. Women should eat at least 12 ounces of fish a week, the group recommends.
"We found that the FDA/EPA advisory was scaring a large number of women away from eating any fish," said Dr. Ashley S. Roman, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at New York University Medical Center and a member of the National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition. "Fish is an important part of a well-balanced diet during pregnancy."
The new recommendations were presented Thursday during a press conference at the National Press Club, in Washington, D.C.
The coalition is a nonprofit group whose members include the American Academy of Pediatrics and the March of Dimes, as well as federal agencies such as the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"There is scientific evidence that fish leads to better outcomes in babies," Roman said. "It leads to better brain development, improved cognitive and motor skills, and some evidence suggests that it might reduce the risk of premature delivery and postpartum depression. Studies have shown that if you eat 12 ounces or more fish per week, you are doing better for your baby than if you eat less than that amount or no fish at all."
Not getting enough omega-3 fatty acids results in health risks to mothers and their children, Roman said. Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which shows that 90 percent of women are eating less than the FDA-recommended amount of fish, confirm the women aren't getting enough omega-3 fatty acids, she added.
Another study found that the FDA/EPA warning caused 56 percent of pregnant women to limit their fish consumption to levels below beneficial amounts, out of fear that fish may harm their developing baby.
Roman said that women who want to become pregnant, are pregnant or are breast-feeding should eat a minimum of 12 ounces per week of fish such as salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel, without fear. For women who can't eat fish, the researchers recommended fish oil supplements as a good alternative.
Eating fish is the best way to get the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Roman noted that selenium, a mineral found in some ocean fish, appears to protect against the harmful effects of mercury. "You have to look at fish as a whole, not at just one element in fish," she said.
One expert thinks that not getting enough omega-3 fatty acids is more dangerous for an infant's health than the danger posed by trace amounts of mercury in some fish.
"There is a direct difference between these recommendations and the current FDA/EPA recommendations," said Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, an assistant professor of medicine and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. "This is a dramatic difference."
"Based on the data, I would agree with these recommendations," said Mozaffarian, who co-authored a 2006 study that endorsed fish consumption. "The evidence for the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids in neuron development is at least as strong as the evidence for harm from mercury. Not getting enough omega-3 fatty acids is dangerous in itself."
Another expert also agreed with the new recommendations.
"I think these researchers follow the science," said Dr. Gary J. Myers, a professor of neurology and pediatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center, in New York.
The only time mercury in fish has been shown to be harmful has been in industrial pollution in Japan, Myers said. "There has never been another case reported anywhere else in the world related to fish consumption," he said.
For more on fish and pregnancy, visit the American Pregnancy Association.