Why A Healthy Diet Needs Some Fish—Important for All and Especially During Pregnancy

Sunset picture of Dr. Whitehead's children with Dad Andrew fishing off pier
The Whitehead Children with Dad 

What’s for dinner tonight? Chances are good that it’s not a fish or seafood meal. The USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that 8 ounces of fish/seafood per week are part of a healthy eating pattern. Most Americans (80 to 90%) do not reach that goali. We may be missing out on nutrients that benefit our overall health.

Why is Fish an Important Nutrient Source?ii

(For everyone, but especially if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or might become pregnancy.)

Fish is an excellent source of protein—one of the critical building blocks of tissue growth, repair, and metabolism. Most of the fat in fish is the healthier type (polyunsaturated). As the special fats in fish are digested, they provide the body with Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. Fish also provides iron, iodine, and choline. These nutrients support your baby’s rapid brain development. Choline is also important in spinal cord development. You continue to need these nutrients throughout your life to perform important metabolic functions.

Including Fish in Your Diet—What Type and How Much?

Dietary guidelines recommend that adults include 8 ounces of fish in their diet each week. Women who are pregnant, may become pregnant, or are breastfeeding should consume 8 to 12 ounces of fish per week. An adult serving is 4 ounces. The Food and Drug Administration and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists both affirm these recommendations. However, concerns about mercury or other environmental contaminants have caused some to avoid fish. The FDA has created a chart to help women in these groups choose the amount and type of fish to eat, and which fish to avoid based on mercury levels.

The chart recommends eating 2 to 3 servings of fish a week from the “Best Choices” list OR 1 serving from the “Good Choices” list.

Adults who are not in these special groups—if they consume more than 3 servings of fish per week—can limit exposure to toxins by choosing farm-raised species or those from the FDA’s Best Choices category.

Other Precautions:

Raw and undercooked fish or seafood can transmit food-borne illness. Pregnant women face higher risks from food poisoning including life-threatening illness and harm to the unborn baby. Pregnant women should only consume fish and seafood that are thoroughly cooked. They should avoid sushi. The elderly, young children, and persons with a weakened immune system also face higher risk of food-borne illness, and it can be serious even for healthy people.

Regarding fish caught by family or friends, the FDA advises:
Check for fish and shellfish advisories to tell you how often you can safely eat those fish. If there is no advisory, eat only one serving and no other fish that week. Some fish caught by family and friends, such as larger carp, catfish, trout and perch, are more likely to have fish advisories due to mercury or other contaminants.

Tips for Eating More Fish if You Aren’t a Big Fan

Top your salad with a serving of light tuna or a grilled fish filet. (Note: canned light tuna is a safer choice than white tuna based on mercury levels. See FDA chart). Fish tacos, fish patties or cakes, and fish with a crispy crust may appeal to you. Cover your fried or grilled fish serving with a favorite homemade or store-bought sauce or dressing. Consider gumbos, chowders, and noodle bowls with spicy broths that camouflage the main ingredient. Remind yourself that it’s a quick meal—you can grill or pan fry fish in minutes!

Fish may not make your weekly grocery list simply because it has gotten so expensive! And many people avoid frozen fish thinking it has a reputation for poor texture, fishy taste, or other shortcoming compared with fresh fish. Give frozen fish another chance. It’s cheaper than fresh and can actually be better in quality. America’s Test Kitchen offers this explanation. (Check the online reviews for particular brands). And enjoy!


iiThis discussion refers to both fish and seafood.