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.

By Dashka Slater and Nicole Harris
Updated January 12, 2021
Advertisement
fresh salmon with spices
Credit: Shutterstock

Of all the food dilemmas you face when pregnant, seafood might be the most slippery. 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 it may be tempting to simply throw up your hands and order a cheeseburger, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) say not to shun fish completely. The organizations recently released guidelines encouraging pregnant women to eat safe quantities of low-mercury fish to help their child'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," Stephen Ostroff, M.D., the FDA's acting chief scientist said 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 promotes 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, says the FDA.

How Much Fish Should I Eat While Pregnant?  

To get the benefits of fish without the harmful effects of mercury, follow FDA guidelines for serving sizes. "The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends women who are pregnant or breastfeeding to consume between 8 and 12 ounces of a variety of seafood per week, from choices that are lower in mercury," according to the FDA. An adult serving size is 4 ounces (about the dimensions of your palm), so the 8-12 ounce recommendation is equivalent to two or three servings of fish per week.

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 two categories: "best choices" and "good choices."  

Best Fish Choices 

Pregnant women can eat two or three servings of these fish each week.

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

Good Fish Choices

Pregnant women 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? Note that if eating 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