There's Something Fishy About These Dietary Guidelines

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From the moment they announce their news, pregnant women are bombarded with well-meaning guidance: Drink milk; take your vitamins; buy a good vitamin E cream; eat lots of low-fat protein, including fish. It's all good advice. But these days, expectant mothers (and women considering pregnancy) are being told to choose their fish carefully.

Conflicting reports from the private and public sectors question the safety of certain types of fish, particularly tuna, which may, according to some studies, contain enough mercury to damage a developing fetus. For millions of women who count on fresh or canned tuna as an easy and inexpensive source of protein, this is very bad news indeed.

While the Food and Drug Administration has chosen to downplay the risk associated with tuna, watchdog organizations like the Environmental Working Group and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group are throwing up red flags, accusing the FDA of taking a lax position on an important safety issue.

The FDA insists it has taken a good hard look at the current numbers and sees no reason to add tuna to its list of suggested fish to avoid (shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish). As long as women avoid the mercury-prone fish they list, agency officials add, there are no safety issues associated with eating fish.

EWG and U.S. PIRG disagree. After conducting their own mercury tests, they have expanded the FDA list to include tuna, sea bass, Gulf Coast oysters, marlin, halibut, pike, walleye, white (Pacific) croaker and largemouth bass. According to a joint report from the groups, "The odds are greater than one in 1,000 that consumption of a single meal of these fish will expose the fetus to a potentially hazardous amount" of mercury. The report goes on to list "safe" fish, including farm-raised trout, farm-raised catfish, shrimp, fish sticks, summer flounder, wild Pacific salmon, croaker, mid-Atlantic blue crab and haddock.

So which fish, exactly, can you eat if you're pregnant or thinking about becoming pregnant? That really depends on your own judgment call. "Poor American consumers are probably just throwing their hands up at this point," says Carolyn Manning, R.D., associate professor in department of nutrition and dietetics at the University of Delaware. "They're being pulled in different directions, told totally different things almost every day. Do pregnant women need to give up tuna fish, for example? If you listen to the FDA, the answer is no. If you listen to these very vocal environmental groups, the answer is absolutely," says Manning.

The bottom line: Talk to your obstetrician or primary care physician if you're concerned about mercury levels. Decide whether you're more comfortable taking the extra-cautious route and cutting out tuna altogether, or if for you, tuna's myriad health benefits outweigh its potential risk.