Pregnant Mothers Versus Fish

When it comes to seafood, pregnant and breastfeeding moms are in something of a bind. On the one hand, the omega-3 fatty acids from seafood aid in neural development. On the other hand, fish, especially those near the top of the aquatic food chain, have noticeable concentrations of mercury. In 2004, the FDA and EPA recommended that moms eat no more than 12 ounces a week of fish, and that they choose fish with lower mercury levels, such as shrimp, salmon, and catfish.

Understandably, a lot of moms opted out of eating fish all together. That can have negative consequences: a recent longitudinal study published in the Lancet indicated that not eating enough fish could lead to behavioral and developmental problems.

Enter Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies. In a press conference this morning, they recommended moms eat at least 12 ounces a week, if not more. Scientists are still hashing out the benefits and risks of eating fish, so why this, if you’ll pardon the expression, sea change?

And who are Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies? They’re not a new organization: they’ve been around since the early 1980s. And they list a number of notable organizations among their members, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the March of Dimes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, and more.

Or, rather, they did list those organizations. NPR did some digging, with interesting results.

The top federal government agencies in charge of delivering public health messages expressed surprise over the announcement from Healthy Mothers, Healthy babies recommending increased fish consumption.

“We are members of the coalition, but we were not informed of this announcement in advance, and we do not support it,” says Christina Pearson, spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services.

Pearson says neither the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nor the Food and Drug Administration knew about the announcement.

Whoops. And as of right now, the members list of Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies no longer includes the American Academy of Pediatrics or the National Institutes of Health. Furthermore, it turns out the group took $60,000 from the National Fisheries Institute to pay for doctors’ “travel expenses to a Chicago meeting, where they came up with their new advice”.

(Note to members of advisory groups who read this blog: when you take any amount of money from an industry-funded group and come out in favor of something that helps that industry, it calls your science into question.)

Neonatal vitamins now include omega-3 fatty acids. Some varieties of milk have the omega-3 fatty acid DHA. And even the group’s list of other countries’ recommendations more-or-less come down on the side of 12 oz/340 grams/two portions of fish a week. Given that, I’d stick with the twelve-ounces-or-less approach and supplement with vitamins.

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