Fresh research suggests pregnant women can eat fish

Some foods are better for the pregnant mother and prospective child than others. For example, a diet rich in fruit and vegetables is likely to be better for the pair than one high in salt and fat. However, even some healthy foods have to be avoided in order to ensure the health of both mother and child; in the past one of these foods was fish. Despite its high quantity of omega-3 oils, some fish had to be avoided by pregnant women to avoid levels of mercury in their system rising too high; however, the University of Bristol says this is no longer the case. In fresh research released this week, they say that the rise in mercury levels does not have an adverse impact on a child’s development and say guidance must now be changed on fish.

The team behind the study drew together findings based on the analysis of 4,131 women who gave birth to children in the 1990s in a study known as children of the 90s.

Having studied the children over the subsequent 20-plus years period, they found that it did not matter which type of fish was eaten as the nutrients in the fish could protect against the effects of mercury content in the water-borne creatures in question.

The reason this study is significant is because women used to be warned not to eat certain fish due to high levels of mercury.

What was more significant, said the scientists, was whether or not women ate fish at all. This is because women who ate fish saw significant health benefits for both them and their child; the latter benefitted both from improved eyesight and intellectual gains.

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Co-author of the study Dr Caroline Taylor said: “We found that the mother’s mercury level during pregnancy is likely to have no adverse effect on the development of the child provided that the mother eats fish. If she did not eat fish, then there was some evidence that her mercury level could have a harmful effect on the child.

“This could be because of the benefits from the mix of essential nutrients that fish provides, including long-chain fatty acids, iodine, vitamin D and selenium.”

Meanwhile, Professor Jean Golding added: “It is important that advisories from health professionals revise their advice warning against eating certain species of fish. There is no evidence of harm from these fish, but there is evidence from different countries that such advice can cause confusion in pregnant women.

“The guidance for pregnancy should highlight ‘eat at least two portions of fish a week, one of which should be oily’ – and omit all warnings that certain fish should not be eaten.”

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Furthermore, the study, published in the Neurotoxicology journal, concluded “that although seafood is a source of dietary mercury, it appeared to explain a relatively small proportion (nine percent) of the variation in total blood mercury in our UK study population”.

Although fish seemingly poses no risk to pregnant women, this does not mean their study is conclusive as it was an observational rather than a causational study; this means it can only observe a link rather than conclude the existence of one.

While a notable study, this not the first time that vitamins from fish has been linked to positive outcomes in pregnancy.

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Another study published this year has found that fish oil supplements could help reduce the risk of a condition affecting young babies known as croup.

Croup is a common childhood condition that affects the airways of babies and young children. Usually mild, it normally gets better within 48 hours.

Nevertheless, the condition can still be a distressing one for both mother and child and any way to reduce the risk of its occurrence can only be seen as a positive choice to make.

According to a study presented the European Respiratory Society International Congress in Barcelona, fish oil supplements can help reduce the likelihood of croup.

Study lead Dr Niklas Brustad said: “There is currently no vaccine against the pathogen that causes this disease. Therefore, other preventive strategies are needed, and measures initiated during pregnancy might be important since croup occurs in babies and young children. For such purpose, there is evidence that both vitamin D and fish oil could have an influence on the immune system.”

The study suggested children whose mothers had taken fish oil supplements were 11 percent less likely to develop croup than those who didn’t take the supplement.

Dr Brustad added: “Our findings suggest that fish oil could be beneficial against childhood croup in sufficiently high doses. These are relatively cheap supplements meaning that this could be a very cost-effective approach to improving young children’s health.

“We are not sure of the exact mechanisms behind the beneficial effects of fish oil, but it could be that they can stimulate the immune system to help babies and young children clear infections more effectively.”

Any pregnant woman is best asking her doctor whether or not she should eat different types of fish and the risks associated with doing so.