Should pregnant women eat fish? UMaine studies prompt better understanding

Posted June 26, 2014, at 10:42 a.m.
Mario Teisl, a faculty member with the University of Maine's schools of economics and policy and international affairs.
Mario Teisl, a faculty member with the University of Maine's schools of economics and policy and international affairs.

Pregnant women are learning how to safely eat fish after early warnings about the dangers turned many off from eating it entirely, according to research conducted at the University of Maine.

Researchers with the university’s Sustainability Solutions Initiative uncovered data on women’s knowledge of both the risks and health benefits of eating fish while pregnant. Mario Teisl, a professor in the School of Economics, will discuss results of two studies as a featured speaker at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 2014 National Forum on Contaminants in Fish in September, according to a news release from UMaine.

The studies — which were published in two peer-reviewed journals — are among the first to examine how information about methylmercury, an organic compound in fish, is conveyed and interpreted by pregnant women in specific states, according to UMaine.

The first study, published in 2011 in the journal Science of the Total Environment, found that an advisory issued by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention led women to eat less fish.

Instead of limiting fish high in mercury and switching to other types containing less of the toxin, many pregnant women turned away from all fish.

“CDC suspected that the original advisory was not working as best as it could and our initial study confirmed the state could do better,” Teisl said in the news release.

The misunderstanding appeared to stem from the advisory’s focus on wild-caught fish.

“The old pamphlet was targeted more toward anglers,” he said. “On the cover, there was a photo of a family fishing. The problem is that very few women eat sport-caught fish. Most eat fish from the grocery store. A lot of pregnant women didn’t understand how the information pertained to them.”

The CDC redesigned its advisory in 2006, adding information about fresh, frozen and canned fish. Recipes, meal plans and colorful charts were included, informing women about which fish to avoid, fish to limit, and fish low enough in mercury to eat twice a week while pregnant. The pamphlet stresses the importance of fish in the diet, including the health benefits for both mother and baby of omega-3 fatty acids and protein.

A follow-up study found the new advisory helped women to take a more balanced approach toward eating fish. Published in 2013 in the journal Environmental Science, the study found women who read the updated advisory could distinguish between similar products, such as canned white tuna, which is high in mercury, and canned light tuna, which isn’t, the news release states.

“Our evaluation of the Maine CDC’s updated fish consumption advisory suggests that it successfully improved women’s specific knowledge of both the benefits and risks of consuming fish while pregnant,” Haley Engelberth, who was part of both methylmercury research teams and served as the lead author of the 2013 paper, said in the release. “This improved knowledge has the potential to minimize methylmercury health impacts and maintain, if not increase, overall low-mercury fish consumption.”

Methylmercury can harm neurological development in fetuses and young children, according to the EPA. Fetuses exposed to the toxin in the womb have experienced negative effects on cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language and fine motor skills.

Consuming omega-3 fatty acids found in fish may reduce inflammation that can damage blood vessels and lead to heart disease. In children, omega-3 fatty acids may improve learning ability, according to the Mayo Clinic.

 

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