Mother, Baby, Seafood

by Elspeth Hay

Mother, Baby, Seafood

Elizabeth Cecil

The day I found out I was pregnant with my daughter I threw up. I spent the next thirty-six days in a state that can really only be described as elated misery, a state many pregnant women know well. I subsisted, barely, on watermelon and popcorn. By the time I finally felt up to eating again, I was worried. This baby needed nutrients, and I wanted to get it right. I picked up a copy of what would soon become my bible: Nina Planck’s Real Food for Mother and Baby.

If I could summarize what I took from the book in one sentence, it would be this: Eat fish. Fish, according to Planck—and the numerous peer-reviewed studies I’ve read since—is the best baby food there is. Your growing baby needs fish to build its brain. Specifically, it needs the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid, and seafood is the best way to get it.

You can get the omega-3 fatty acid ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) from plant sources like walnuts and flaxseed. But in order to turn ALA into DHA, your body must first convert it to EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). Only one percent of ALA turns into EPA, and less than 0.1 percent becomes DHA, making this an incredibly inefficient way to get your body the DHA your baby needs. With seafood, you get DHA, straight up.

Many pregnant women are scared of fish. They shouldn’t be, but there’s a good reason for their confusion. In 2004, the EPA and FDA recommended that women who are pregnant, nursing, or may become pregnant should avoid eating certain species of fish that contain high levels of methylmercury and should limit their weekly intake of seafood to 340 grams, or about two servings.

The nuances of this advice were lost in popular translation. When women heard “mercury,” “harmful to your unborn baby,” and “fish,” they stopped eating seafood. But the problem, from a nutritional standpoint, was this: Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) from 2007 indicated that 90 percent of American women are eating less than the recommendation allowed and that 56 percent have needlessly reduced their consumption.

Then, also in 2007, a study on pregnant women found that the FDA’s recommendation might actually be bad for babies. It turned out that limiting weekly seafood consumption to 340 grams or less did not protect children. In fact, researchers found that consuming more than 340 grams per week had a beneficial effect on child development, and that limiting consumption could actually be detrimental.

This study did not ask women what kind of fish they were eating. The researchers concluded that regardless of the type of fish eaten, the loss of nutrients was more harmful than the risks posed by potential contaminants.

The research goes on. Eating seafood can reduce your risk of pre-term delivery and a low birth-weight baby. Eating seafood can help you avoid depression during pregnancy, and after. If you eat it early and often, it may even help your child avoid diseases like diabetes and obesity later in life.

Despite this research, the official line of the EPA and FDA hasn’t changed. When I was pregnant (my daughter was born in October 2011), I got two brochures on seafood from Cape Cod Hospital. (The Martha’s Vineyard Hospital gives out the same ones). One was an exact replica of the 2004 advice, and the other, issued by the state of Massachusetts, was on the dangers of PCBs in bluefish. Neither one said anything about the particular importance of seafood for my baby’s brain.

Traditional societies seemed to understand the connection between seafood consumption and healthy kids. In the 1930s, a dentist named Weston Price studied the diets of numerous traditional societies and made extrapolations about their health based on the health of their teeth. He was looking at dental arches (think well-spaced teeth without braces) and the prevalence of cavities. All of the cultures that ate no refined foods and relied heavily on seafood had almost no cavities and very well spaced arches. He credited the people’s diet with their excellent health and fertility, and noted that one tribe of natives living inland in the Andean Sierras regularly traded with coastal natives for dried fish eggs. In his book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration Weston notes, “When I inquired of them why [...], they explained that it was necessary to maintain the fertility of their women.”

Historically, the diet of local Wampanoags was made up largely of seafood. Did this help them produce especially healthy moms and babies? Maybe; it’s hard to say. But in light of Price’s research, it’s worth noting that John Brereton, an early European visitor to the Island, made special note of the natives’ straight and “very white” teeth.

When I was pregnant, I listened politely when the nurse went over the brochure from the FDA. I tried not to eat too much bluefish, high in PCBs, or bluefin tuna and swordfish, both relatively high in mercury. And then I made sure to eat seafood almost every day.

When it came to sourcing fish, I was lucky. My husband owns a fish market, and some of the best local species for your developing baby’s brain—the small, oily ones—are also the hardest to find.

What are these local species? The best one, DHA-wise, is mackerel. Gram per gram, mackerel has more omega-3s than every other local species, including wild Atlantic salmon. (Wild Atlantic salmon is a close second; unfortunately, it’s commercially extinct.) Mackerel are small, so they don’t pose a mercury threat, and they’re full of the long-chain fatty acids you and your baby need. Fishermen catch them inshore when the water warms up, and the season usually lasts for a few weeks in May and June.

Danny Larsen at Edgartown Seafood says the lobstermen usually notice them first. “We’ve got ‘em in the harbor, off of Gay Head, south of No Man’s—anywhere along the south side of the Island,” he says, but notes that there isn’t as big a market for them as there used to be.

Without salmon, herring is second best. Unfortunately, herring are in trouble too. Theories on why differ depending on who you ask, but most groups agree that it’s a combination of overfishing and habitat loss. The best local data on this come from the Mattapoisett River in Buzzards Bay, where the herring count dropped 95 percent between 2000 and 2004. In 2005, the state put a moratorium on taking river herring. The state has also cleared streams of obstructions like dams, and the Natural Resources Defense Council is waiting to hear back on a petition to designate river herring as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. In the meantime, a March 12 court decision ruled that the National Marine Fisheries Service has failed to protect the species, in particular from industrial midwater trawlers, and will now have to take action. If they can bring back the herring, it will be good news for women and babies.

In the meantime, there is no edible local herring fishery. Midwater trawlers are still catching huge amounts of herring, but most of it isn’t food-grade and gets used as bait.

I asked Bettina Washington, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, if tribe members are still allowed to catch herring when they migrate into the rivers.

“When I was young, the coming of herring meant spring and all that went with it,” she told me. “The men would be down the creek—sometimes we would get to stay up late and watch them bring the fish up in the big net. [There was] lots of baked herring, watching the folks sort through to find the females to get the roe (poor man’s caviar). Herring would change the pattern of living in town for that time.” Individual tribal members still have sustenance fishing rights, she says, but many people don’t use them out of respect for the fish. “I haven’t had a herring in years,” she says.

There is a company in Maine—Bar Harbor Foods—that sells canned sardine, mackerel, and herring fillets that the labels claim are “sustainably harvested from the clear cold waters of the Gulf of Maine.” I called the company, and the representative told me she didn’t know of any problems with sustainability. This confused me. Isn’t the fishery in trouble? In the United States, yes, she explained. But the Gulf of Maine is a big place, and although the company’s headquarters are in the state of Maine, the herring in those cans are caught and packaged in Canada. The herring fishery there is managed sustainably.

I’d rather have bought my herring from a local fish market, or even a New England cannery. The fact that our traditional herring fishery has all but evaporated is worrisome, and something I will continue to work to change. But in the meantime, I needed to build a brain, and so I packed away quite a few tins of Maple Syrup-Soaked Gulf of Maine Herring.

My grandmother says her mother made her take cod liver oil every spring. She hated it, but her mother insisted it would keep her healthy. It turns out, Maw-Maw was on to something.

Cod liver oil is packed full of omega-3s, vitamin A, and vitamin D, all of which are good for your baby. But locally, we throw most of this oil away. Before our fishing boats even make it to shore, they gut the fish and throw the liver and attached gallbladders overboard. It helps the fish stay fresh, but health-wise, it’s a waste.

Traditionally, north Atlantic fishermen saved these parts. It wasn’t pretty—they threw them in a barrel and left them to decompose for a few months. Then they skimmed the oil off the top, heated up what was left in order to squeeze any last oil out, and skimmed again.

There’s no reason we couldn’t be doing this today. Most cod liver oil on the market is ultra-refined, and in the process, it loses a lot of nutrients. Some companies even add synthetic vitamin A and vitamin D back in. If you know a local fishermen who will save you his cod livers, making your own oil might be an interesting experiment.

In the meantime, there are several good brands of cod liver oil on the market (my favorite is Dr. Ron’s). Monkfish liver might also make a good local alternative. Like chicken liver, it’s delicious cooked and made into pâté, and it’s also prized by sushi chefs for making sashimi.

Fish roe is another great source of omega-3s. Usually, local roe comes from small, oily species like shad and herring. But it doesn’t hurt to think outside the box. Whole live scallops come with a delicious roe, which you can eat pan-seared.

So what should you eat? I ate a lot of mackerel during the few brief weeks it was in season. My husband and I even preserved some as Vinha d’ Alhos, the Portuguese way with vinegar, to eat during the summer. I ate canned oily fish once or twice a week—wild Alaskan salmon, pickled herring, sardines, and anchovies. I developed a thing for scallops. I ate three, pan-seared and dipped in Parmesan fondue, almost every afternoon at the restaurant where I work. It wasn’t unusual for me to put away a half-dozen fried Wellfleet oysters before service (in addition to omega-3s, oysters are high in zinc, an important nutrient for baby-building). I ate a fair amount of lobster tails dipped in mayonnaise, and I ate all kinds of white fillets. Finally, I took two capsules of cod liver oil every evening just in case.

We’re lucky. We are surrounded by very fresh seafood, most of it still swimming. Small oily fish have the most omega-3s, but other local species have plenty. If you’re eating seafood often enough, the relatively lower levels of omega-3s in easier-to-find, less contaminated, and more sustainable local species like cod, scallops, oysters, mussels, clams, shrimp, crab, haddock, flounder, halibut, whiting, black seabass, and perch will add up.

Above all, try not to worry. Living on the Vineyard, chances are you’re getting far more than two servings of omega-3-rich seafood every week. Your baby is lucky, and in all likelihood, that baby is busy building a top-notch brain.

Sources: Barry L. Johnson et. al., “Public Health Implications of Exposure to Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCB s),” Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry for the U.S. Department of Health and Human services, retrieved from the web on April 12, 2012. T.W. Clarkson et. al., “The toxicology of Mercury—Current Exposures and Clinical Manifestations,” The New England Journal of Medicine 349 (2003): 1731-37. N. Sorensen et. al., “Prenatal methylmercury exposure as a cardiovascular risk factor at seven years of age,” Epidemiology 10 (1999): 370-75; K.S. Krump et. al., “Influence of prenatal mercury exposure upon scholastic and psychological test performance: benchmark analysis of a New Zealand cohort,” Risk Analysis 18 (1998): 701-13. ).