New UH study: OK for pregnant women to eat most fish - Hawaii News Now - KGMB and KHNL

New UH study: OK for pregnant women to eat most fish

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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) -

For years, women who are pregnant have been told to avoid eating fish because some fish may have levels of mercury that could be harmful to developing brains. But a new study conducted by the John A. Burns School of Medicine at the University of Hawaii indicates that not eating fish may be doing more harm than good.

The current guidelines on fish consumption were issued by the federal Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency in 2004 and are followed by the state Health Department. They say pregnant women and young children should not eat Pacific blue marlin, shark or swordfish. The guidelines also said ahi, ono and opah should not be eaten more than once every two weeks; many other fish, including aku, canned tuna, cod, grouper, halibut, mahimahi, nairagi, orange roughy and pollock, should be eaten only once a week.

"In that study, the population they were looking at consumed a lot of North Atlantic cod," said Dr. Marla Berry, the chair of the Cellular and Molecular Biology Department at JABSOM. "But they also ate a lot of pilot whale. And it turns out the source of the mercury was not from the fish. It was from the whale. So if you eat whale meat, it's a problem."

JABSOM, Kapiolani Medical Center for Women and Children and the U.H. Cancer Center have been conducting a study since 2010, in which they asked 100 women how much fish they ate during their pregnancy. The women's placentas also were studied to determine whether mercury from the fish was passed on to their babies. Researchers said it turns out that the element selenium, which is naturally produced in fish, has benefits that outweigh the mercury.

"Our natural ocean fish here have very high levels of selenium," said John Kaneko of the Hawaii Seafood Council, who is also a veterinarian, who added that the evidence now shows that selenium protects against toxic effects of mercury.

"If you stick to fish, most of the fish that we eat, then the selenium that's in that fish de-toxifies the mercury and makes it so our bodies can't absorb it," said Berry.

Kaneko added that eating fish is important in developing babies. "Fish is very important for the development of the nervous system. The eye, the retina is very dependent on Omega-3 fatty acids that come from seafood."

The local study follows similar ones, including research done with women in the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean. The Seychelles study showed that eating fish actually helped. "These other studies have shown that the women that consumed the most fish during pregnancy, their kids, followed up 16 to 20 years later, had the higher IQ's than the women who didn't consume fish during pregnancy," said Berry.

Consider also that Hawaii residents consume three to four times as much fish as the national average. "If eating fish was bad, we would see more of an incidence of developmental problems in kids in Hawaii because we eat so much more fish. But we haven't seen it," said Berry.

Berry and Kaneko said pilot whale, tilefish, shark, swordfish and king mackerel should still be avoided by pregnant women. But other than those, everyone should continue to eat fish for its benefits.

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The research is still underway, but Berry expects the findings to be published in the near future.