Fish in pregnancy? Yes and no, and why it is irreplaceable

Increasing the consumption of fish would help meet the increased protein requirements, especially in the last trimester of pregnancy and in the first months of breastfeeding, ensuring the fetus the “building blocks” for an ideal growth.

Fish consumption in our country has increased in recent years: in 2018, in fact, Italy recorded the highest per capita consumption in Europe, around 28 kg of fish per consumer per year. Also due to the greater consumption of canned fish, especially tuna and mackerel.

Within the food pyramid of the Mediterranean Diet, fish is placed on the 4th step, out of a total of 7, where there are foods that should be eaten 3 times a week.

Fish, irreplaceable food

Together with legumes , fish represents an irreplaceable element for many reasons: firstly, its high protein quality, thanks to the content of essential amino acids and in large quantities – a portion of fish supplies about 1/3 of the daily requirement of a adult.

Furthermore, its meat is poor in connective tissue, making it more digestible and suitable for feeding children . In particular, during weaning, the inclusion of fish in the diet of children and of eggs is often delayed due to the fear of the onset of allergies, when instead it is precisely this delay that causes the predisposition.

The current nutritional recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO) indicate not to postpone the intake of fish and egg after 9 months and to promote their inclusion within a short time after the introduction of solid foods, preferably while the child is breastfed .

Secondly, fish is unique for its content of essential fatty acids: omega-3s are present in only a few other foods, walnuts, flax seeds and algae, but in smaller quantities and above all with less availability.

The function of these compounds is vital for the nervous system and for the correct development of the fetus, but not only: omega-3s regulate the functioning of organs and tissues and constitute the starting material for the generation of anti-inflammatory compounds.

In the Mediterranean basin, these effects were recently highlighted by the Italian study ” Moli-sani” (2017) , which linked weekly fish consumption and the risk of cardiovascular disease in a sample of 20,000 adults.

The results showed that as the daily amount of fish consumed increased, the risk of coronary heart disease decreased .

How much fish in pregnancy?

This food plays an even more important role during the months of pregnancy : increasing its consumption would help satisfy the higher protein requirements, especially in the last trimester of pregnancy and in the first months of breastfeeding, ensuring the fetus the “building blocks” for an ideal growth.

However, it is advisable, both before and after the birth of the baby, to prefer small-sized fish , such as oily fish (anchovies, sardines, mackerel, albacore tuna) and lean fish (sole, hake, cod) due to the potential levels of mercury in large species (swordfish, salmon, dogfish, bluefin tuna).

In addition to being a good source of protein and healthy fats, the species classified as oily fish are rich in vitamins , including vitamin D: anchovies and sardines in particular are the foods with the highest content of this nutrient, present in modest quantities in the meat. In the case of vitamin D, however, the diet is not sufficient to cover the requirement, which is satisfied for 75% by sun exposure.

The species called “blue fish” are rich in other vitamins and minerals and each of them differs in its qualities:

  • anchovies are a precious source of potassium, magnesium and phosphorus,
  • a portion of sardines contains about 1/3 of the daily calcium requirement;
  • vitamin B12, present in all fish, is particularly abundant in sardines and mackerel, the consumption of which allows the daily needs of this vitamin to be fully satisfied according to what is indicated by the LARN (Reference Nutrient Intake Levels for the Italian population).
  • Mackerel, compared to the others, is richer in iodine;
  • tuna, on the other hand, is distinguished by a lower lipid content and a good supply of vitamin B3.

Fish during pregnancy: cooked, raw or smoked?

The cooking of food of animal origin during the maternity months must always reach the heart of the product, in order to avoid risks of food poisoning or infections . Therefore, any fish species (fish, molluscs, crustaceans) can only be consumed once cooked and in the shortest possible time. However, smoked fish is not recommended .

The same rule applies to eggs and meat, always bearing in mind as a general rule that it is advisable to prefer frozen foods to those preserved in cans and plan to consume them immediately after the opening date – not beyond the expiry date.

From this point of view, fish preserves offer a safe food choice, thanks to the various production phases that do not alter the nutritional properties (thawing, canning, sterilisation, packaging).

The only exception is given by tuna , in which the omega-3 content is drastically reduced through the passage from fresh to canned product; for all the others, however, the maintenance of the nutritional profile is guaranteed. The advice is to avoid the use of salt as a condiment at the time of consumption , as the food itself already contains a high sodium content, both naturally present in fish and added according to production methods.

How much is a portion?

According to the Italian Society of Human Nutrition (SINU), a portion of fresh/frozen fish for the adult population is equivalent to 150g, 50g in drained weight if referring to preserved fish. A correct diet, which considers not only fish but also whole grains, fruit and vegetables, is also preventive for the risk of gestational diabetes , a common disease among pregnant women due to an unbalanced diet.

Kathryn Barlow is an OB/GYN doctor, which is the medical specialty that deals with the care of women's reproductive health, including pregnancy and childbirth.

Obstetricians provide care to women during pregnancy, labor, and delivery, while gynecologists focus on the health of the female reproductive system, including the ovaries, uterus, vagina, and breasts. OB/GYN doctors are trained to provide medical and surgical care for a wide range of conditions related to women's reproductive health.

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