Here's What Fish Is Safe During Pregnancy and How Much to Eat

With conflicting research and concerns about mercury levels, there’s plenty of confusion about whether fish is safe for pregnancy. Here, we break down the latest guidelines for expectant parents.

fresh salmon with spices
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Seafood might be the most slippery of all the food dilemmas you face when pregnant. Fish contain nutrients essential to the developing fetus, but they can also be contaminated with damaging polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and mercury, which may negatively affect your baby's brain and nervous system. Fish recommendations have also changed constantly over the years, leaving many pregnant people out of the loop on the latest guidelines.

While throwing up your hands and ordering a cheeseburger may be tempting, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) say not to shun fish completely. Both organizations' 2022 updated guidelines encourage pregnant people to eat safe quantities of low-mercury fish to help their baby's growth and development.

But what kinds of fish are considered safe, and what's the recommended serving size? Keep reading to learn more.

The Benefits of Fish During Pregnancy

"For years, many women have limited or avoided eating fish during pregnancy or feeding fish to their young children," said Stephen Ostroff, M.D., the FDA's acting chief scientist, in an FDA statement. "But emerging science now tells us that limiting or avoiding fish during pregnancy and early childhood can mean missing out on important nutrients that can have a positive impact on growth and development as well as on general health."

Indeed, fish provides plenty of protein, iron, vitamin D, vitamin B12, and minerals like iodine, zinc, and selenium. It's also rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which promote fetal brain and nervous system development and lowers the risk of preeclampsia, low birth weight, and preterm birth. When incorporated into a healthy diet, fish has also been associated with heart health and decreased obesity risks, according to the FDA.

How Much Fish Should I Eat While Pregnant?

The FDA recommends that pregnant and breastfeeding parents take advantage of eating fish since it is a healthy, nutrient-dense protein. They recommend that a single serving of fish is 4 ounces (about the dimensions of your palm). The FDA has broken up its list of safe fish (read more below) into Best, Good, and Avoid categories. By their measurement, a pregnant or breastfeeding parent can safely eat a 4-ounce serving (about the dimensions of the palm of your hand) two to three times per week from the Best list.

List of Safe Fish During Pregnancy

Savvy eaters should look for clean seafood that's high in omega-3s, low in mercury and PCBs, and sustainably caught or farmed. The FDA further breaks safe fish into "best choices" and "good choices."

While the FDA takes a cautious view of mercury in fish, research is moving quickly, and scientists are beginning to question if mercury levels in the fish matter. A 2022 study from the University of Bristol found that the type of fish does not matter when it comes to levels of mercury; what matters is that pregnant people are getting essential nutrients from eating fish, and those nutrients protect against any ingested mercury.

Professor Jean Golding, co-author and Emeritus Professor of Pediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology at the University of Bristol, said, "The guidance for pregnancy should highlight 'Eat at least two portions of fish a week, one of which should be oily."

Thankfully there are plenty of choices for those who want to remain cautious about the type of fish they eat and can still enjoy seafood without the stress of unknown mercury levels.

Best Fish Choices

According to the FDA, pregnant people can eat two or three servings of these fish each week.

 Anchovy  Atlantic croaker  Atlantic mackerel
 Black sea bass  Butterfish  Catfish
 Clam  Cod  Crawfish
 Flounder  Haddock  Hake
 Herring (oily)  Lobster, American and spinny  Mullet
Oyster Pacific chub mackerel (oily) Perch, freshwater, and ocean
Pickerel Plaice Pollock
Salmon (oily) Sardine Scallop
Shad Shrimp Skate
Smelt Sole Squid
Tilapia Trout, freshwater (oily) Tuna, canned light (includes skipjack)
Whitefish Whiting

Good Fish Choices

According to the FDA, pregnant people can eat one weekly serving of these fish.

 Bluefish  Buffalofish  Carp
 Chilean sea bass/ Patagonian toothfish  Grouper  Halibut
 Mahi Mahi/ Dolphinfish  Monkfish  Rockfish
 Sablefish  Sheepshead  Snapper
 Spanish mackerel  Striped bass (ocean)  Tilefish (Atlantic Ocean)
 Tuna, albacore/white tuna, canned and fresh/frozen  Tuna, yellowfin  Weakfish/ seatrout
White croaker/ Pacific croaker

Do you have a fisherman in the family? If you eat freshly caught fish, you should "eat only one serving and no other fish that week," says the FDA. Avoid eating any fish involved in current fish advisories.

Fish to Avoid During Pregnancy

Certain fish, particularly large predators at the top of the food chain, contain high levels of methyl-mercury, a potent neurotoxin dispersed into the air by coal-fired power plants. Mercury is particularly damaging to the developing brain, and studies have found that its negative impacts can cancel out the brain-boosting powers of fish oil.

Like omega-3s, mercury can pass to babies through breast milk—and so can polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), flame-retardant chemicals linked to neurological damage and cancer. Though banned in 1979, PCBs persist in oceans and waterways and accumulate in the bodies of certain fish.

Here's the FDA's list of fish with the highest mercury levels to banish from your plate:

  • King mackerel
  • Marlin
  • Orange roughy
  • Shark
  • Swordfish
  • Tilefish (Gulf of Mexico)
  • Tuna, bigeye
Updated by Nicole Harris
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