Advice from the FDA to pregnant women and young children about the consumption of seafood no longer stands the test of time. The Dietary Guidelines released yesterday recognize the benefits of a diet that is rich in seafood. It is time the FDA did the same.
In 2004, HHS's Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued advice to women who are or might be pregnant, nursing mothers and young children about fish and shellfish. The guidance urged this select group to eat up to 12 ounces of fish a week, while avoiding four rarely-eaten types (shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish) because of mercury.
While well intended, many doctors and dietitians believe the advice has done more harm than good.
New research suggests the nutrition we get as early as in the womb can affect us all our lives. Among the nutrients moms and their babies need the most, but all too often don't get enough of, are the omega-3s found in seafood.
Science shows eating fish during pregnancy boosts brain and eye development in babies. While the latest studies suggest at least two 4-ounce servings of seafood a week is best, the average American mom-to-be eats just 1.89 ounces a week. That's less than one full serving.
The amount of seafood families eat remains woefully low after babies are born. According to a survey of American consumer behavior, 91 percent of parents with children 12 years old or younger feed their families fish less than dietitians recommend. And the problem can be cyclical: 65 percent of parents who feed seafood to their children less than twice a year reported that they rarely or never ate seafood themselves as a child.
While there are many reasons Americans eat the foods they do, unclear and outdated advice from the federal government about eating seafood is a part of the seafood-deficiency problem.
Although the guidance contains a few sentences about the benefits of eating fish, it comes across to risk-adverse expectant moms as a warning. In addition, Americans far outside the advice's target audience have been alarmed about seafood. One study showed 30 percent of respondents believe the FDA opinion applies to all Americans.
Most importantly, it was crafted nearly seven years ago and doesn't reflect the groundswell of science published since then that reveals the measurable risks of not eating enough seafood during pregnancy and beyond.
Stunningly, the Dietary Guidelines have been renewed twice since the FDA issued their advice in 2004. At a time when Americans are struggling with widespread nutrition-related disease, federal advice about what to eat must be based on current science.
The result of the advice has been exactly the opposite of what the FDA and EPA intended. Instead of helping families form healthy nutrition habits from the start, the advice is scaring them away from one of the few foods the guidelines says Americans need to eat more often.
The Obama Administration has made the health of Americans one of their top priorities. Now that the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans is set, it's time to turn to the FDA's advice about nutrition during pregnancy. New advice from the FDA should not wait another year.
Dr. Mary Harris, RD, is a Professor of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Colorado State University and a member of the Perinatal Nutrition Working Group, a program of the National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition.