Eat fish during pregnancy

It is always surprising when people do not like fish, seafood and molluscs of every shape, colour and size. This disinterest and in some cases, active avoidance of fish, was in the past partly due to lack of exposure to the delights of seafood and the poor quality of fish sold in the interior of this country.

Nowadays, these factors no longer apply, because every supermarket sells a great variety of fresh, frozen and canned fish, and seafood restaurant chains have opened up everywhere, offering the most delectable fish dishes at prices ranging from very reasonable to highly expensive.

Fish is really good for you
Besides tasting delicious and providing variety to the diet, fish and seafood are highly nutritious providing top quality protein, vitamins A and D, B vitamins, including B12, important minerals such as iron, calcium, iodine and phosphorus, and essential fatty acids, such as omega-3 to the diet. Research has shown that eating fish is an excellent dietary habit and at no time is it more important than before, during, and after pregnancy.

The protein in fish is rich in essential amino acids, which are fully bio-available to the body to build new cells and repair old ones. An adequate protein intake during pregnancy is required by the foetus to meet its needs for growth. Low weight at birth has been identified as a prime risk factor for infant mortality and morbidity, so to avoid these dangers it is important to eat foods rich in high-quality protein, like fish, during pregnancy.

Fatty fish and fish oils are among the richest sources of vitamins A and D in the diet and the old practice of giving children a spoonful of cod liver oil a day to ward off winter chills and ills, was highly effective. Just because cod liver and halibut oils have such a high vitamin A content, it’s better not to take these supplements during pregnancy unless prescribed by your doctor.

Vitamin A, when taken in excess, i.e. in doses exceeding the RDA of 5 000 International Units (IU) per day, could be harmful to the foetus. The vitamins A and D derived from eating fish regularly will, however, not reach excessive levels, so you and your baby get the benefits without the risk.

Fish and seafood are also rich in the B complex vitamins, including vitamin B12. Pregnant women who tend to eat a semi-vegetarian diet that does not include meat, should try to eat fish at least 3-4 times a week to ensure that they do not develop a B12 deficiency. Such a deficiency can cause pernicious anaemia, which is harmful to both mother and child. The B complex vitamins in fish will also help to keep the mother’s nervous system calm and contribute to a relaxed pregnancy.

Fish contains reasonable quantities of biologically available iron, which can help to prevent iron-deficiency anaemia in pregnancy, which puts the mother and child at risk.

While fish is not as rich a source of calcium as milk and dairy products, research in countries like South Africa, has indicated that women who eat the soft bones in canned fish can obtain an appreciable amount of their daily calcium requirement from this source. Calcium is essential during pregnancy to help the foetus build strong bones and teeth.

Nowadays the table salt we use is fortified with iodine, so that outright iodine deficiencies leading to maternal goitre and foetal hypothyroidism and mental retardation or cretinism, are rare. Fish is however, still one of the best sources of iodine in the diet and eating 3-4 servings of fish a week will ensure that your child does not suffer from hypothyroidism.

Fish is also rich in phosphorus, a mineral that helps to strengthen developing bones and teeth, and regulate the nervous system.

Omega-3 fatty acids
Research into the omega-3 fatty acids, such as DHA and EPA, is coming up with the most exciting results. Recently, a study conducted with more than 8 000 pregnant women in Denmark showed that eating fish regularly reduced the incidence of low birth weight and premature delivery substantially. Women who ate about 12g of fish a day (i.e. about 2 x 50g portions a week) were 3 times less likely to deliver low birth weight babies than women who ate no fish at all.

The mothers who ate no fish were twice as likely to give birth prematurely than those who had their 2 portions of fish a week. This significant reduction in low birth weight and premature births was attributed to the increased intake in omega-3 fatty acids associated with eating fish.

This new evidence of the protective effect of eating fish and ingesting adequate supplies of omega-3 fatty acids during pregnancy, must be added to previous findings that omega-3 fatty acids are essential for the normal development of the brain, nervous system and eyes in the foetus.

To give your baby the very best chance in life, by avoiding low birth weight and prematurity, and helping the child to be clever and see well, it is an excellent idea to eat fish at least twice a week before, during and after pregnancy. It should be kept in mind that the central nervous system (brain and nerves) starts growing actively before birth and keeps on growing for at least the first year of life.

To ensure that breast milk contains sufficient omega-3 fatty acids to help the baby’s central nervous system and eyes develop properly, pregnant women need to continue eating fish during lactation. But, don’t stop eating fish once the baby has been weaned.

Children should also be given fish regularly throughout their childhood and teens, because omega-3 fatty acids in fish and seafood have many other important protective roles to play during the developing years and also in adult life.

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