Can I Eat Salmon While Pregnant?

Salmon fillet

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When you find out you are pregnant, you may begin to wonder which foods are safe to eat and which you need to avoid. Fish is particularly tricky. It has many health benefits and some varieties support a growing baby's brain, but it also comes with some potential dangers, like mercury contamination and food-borne illness.

Salmon can be a good choice because it has a fairly low mercury content and it doesn't have a strong fishy taste that may turn you off if you experience food aversions during pregnancy. As long as you eat well-cooked salmon and keep weekly consumption consumption, this fish is nutrient-rich and safe while you are expecting.

Eating Salmon During Pregnancy

Eating two to three servings of fully cooked salmon per week is safe and provides a variety of nutrients during pregnancy. "Salmon is an excellent source of DHA or omega 3 fatty acids which have many benefits to developing the fetus as well as to the pregnancy," notes Daniel Roshan, MD, FACOG, FACS, a New York City-based board-certified high-risk maternal-fetal OBGYN. "These benefits include possible positive impact on neurodevelopment in the fetus and infant, reduction in preterm delivery as well as a possible decrease in pregnancy-induced hypertension."

British Columbia-based registered dietitian Rachel McBryan adds, "Salmon is filled with omega-3 fatty acids, specifically two types, EPA and DHA, that are extremely important for the development of the fetus’s brain and eyes during pregnancy." 

Salmon must be fully cooked to be pregnancy-safe. Dr. Roshan points out, "Smoked and raw salmon is not fully cooked and should not be eaten during pregnancy as it can lead to listeria infection."

Every pregnancy is different. Be sure to consult with a healthcare provider about your circumstances if you have any questions about eating salmon while pregnant.

Is It Safe for Baby?

Fully cooked salmon is safe for your baby in utero, and it has many benefits including brain and eye development. Smoked salmon is not considered safe unless it is canned in a shelf-stable way. In other words, it is not purchased in the refrigerated section of the store.

Raw salmon is not safe to eat during pregnancy. Sticking to two to three servings of fully cooked salmon per week also protects your baby against excessive mercury exposure while providing beneficial nutrients.

Benefits of Salmon During Pregnancy

Salmon has many benefits for an unborn baby because it is rich in docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid. "During pregnancy, there is a natural decline in DHA unless it is being added to the diet. As a result, only one-fourth of pregnant women are consuming adequate DHA for their child’s health," McBryan points out.

Fatty fish varieties are an excellent pregnancy food because they provide DHA, but some other fish varieties are not safe to eat when you are expecting because of mercury content. Because salmon has a lower mercury content, you can eat the recommended amount without worry about this risk.

In addition, canned salmon can be a cost-effective way to include salmon in meals when fresh or frozen do not meet budget requirements.

Might Lower Postpartum Depression Risk

Nearly 12% of new birthing parents experience postpartum depression (PPD), feelings of sadness and distress that interfere with daily functioning during the first year after giving birth. How omega-3s might improve depressive mood after birth is not fully understood, but because they are in higher demand during pregnancy it makes sense a pregnant and nursing person might need more.

Even if you're planning to increase your omega-3 intake, it's important to have resources for PPD support in place before you deliver your baby. Make sure your partner and/or friends and family know what signs to look for so they can support you.

Talk to a healthcare provider about omega-3s keeping in mind many studies focus on supplement omega-3s rather than food sources. They can assist you in making a decision that is right for you.

Promotes Neurodevelopment

DHA is necessary for brain growth and development. "It has been found that mothers who consumed 8 to 12 ounces of fish a week had children with significantly higher IQ scores than those who did not," says McBryan.

Even getting in 4 to 6 ounces of fish a week might provide a boost in IQ. One study found that infants whose mothers consumed enough DHA during pregnancy had better cognitive skills at age 1. DHA deficiency has also been linked to learning problems. Fatty fish like salmon and sardines are highest in omega-3s.

May Reduce Risk of Pregnancy-Induced Hypertension

Eating fish during pregnancy might help reduce the risk of high blood pressure. However, studies have only found correlation. It's important to remember that they look at food intake overall rather than just one food "causing" a health-related outcome.

Hypertension can lead to preeclampsia, which is a serious and potentially fatal condition during pregnancy, so if you enjoy fish it might be worth including it into your meals on a regular basis along with whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans and lentils, calcium-rich foods and so on.

It is also imperative that blood pressure be checked on a regular basis during pregnancy. And no matter what you are eating, make sure you have regular prenatal appointments.

May Reduce Risk for Preterm Delivery

Making sure you eat enough seafood (two to three 4-ounce servings a week) may reduce your risk of delivering early. Salmon is a great choice because you can safely eat two to three servings per week, unlike other types of fish that need to be limited further or avoided altogether because of high mercury content.

It is also important to speak with a healthcare provider, because many of the studies on this topic use omega-3 supplements rather than food sources. A healthcare provider can assist you in finding the right balance.

Safety Precautions

While salmon contains nutrients that are beneficial to your baby's developing brain—as well as your health—there are a few precautions to keep in mind. It's important to eat your salmon fully cooked and to limit your consumption to 4-ounce servings two to three times per week in order to get the omega-3 benefits while limiting mercury exposure.

Prevent Listeria Exposure

Avoid raw or smoked salmon in favor of fully-cooked dishes to prevent listeria. Listeria is a bacteria that causes an infection (called listeriosis) you can get by consuming contaminated food, and pregnant people are among the most susceptible groups. If an expecting person contracts listeria, they may have only mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, but the infection can cross the placenta increasing the risk for premature delivery, miscarriage, stillbirth, or life-threatening infection at birth.

"The ideal temperature salmon should be cooked to is 145 degrees Fahrenheit to kill any pathogens," McBryan advises.

It is OK to eat smoked salmon that has been cooked into a dish like a casserole or a pizza, as well as smoked salmon that is canned and does not require refrigeration before it is opened. It is also important to keep your refrigerator at the advised temperature (40 degrees Fahrenheit or below) while storing fish. You also should only eat fish from restaurants that store and cook fish properly.

Monitor Mercury Content

It is important to watch your mercury intake during pregnancy because high levels can cause brain damage and hearing and vision problems in your baby. However, you don't want to avoid fish if you enjoy it, since oily fish have important nutrient benefits. It's a balance of choosing lower mercury options and having them 2 to 3 times per week.

All fish has some amount of mercury, and while some types need to be avoided completely during pregnancy, salmon just needs to be limited. To keep your mercury intake within the safe range, stick to two to three 4-ounce servings of salmon and other low-mercury fish (like sardines and trout) per week.

A Word From Verywell

Eating salmon during pregnancy is a good way to get the DHA your baby needs for their developing brain. It is important to make sure your salmon is fully cooked to reduce the risk of contracting listeria and other food-borne pathogens like parasites. You also want to be aware of your total seafood intake to avoid consuming dangerous levels of mercury while also getting enough oily fish each week (if you enjoy it).

Sticking to two to three 4-ounce servings of fully cooked salmon per week will get you and your growing baby its benefits while making sure your baby stays safe. Always check with a healthcare provider about exactly how much fish is OK for you to consume during pregnancy or if you have any questions about how it can safely be prepared.

If you need assistance in figuring out how to fit fish into your regular diet, or if you have questions about supplements versus fish intake, consider speaking with a registered dietitian who specializes in prenatal nutrition.

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15 Sources
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