Pregnant Women Should Eat Tuna

To the Editor,

Dr. Joey Shulman’s column “Is Tuna Safe to Eat?” (June 20, 2006), paints a narrow picture of a complex issue. Her suggestion that women who are pregnant or breastfeeding steer clear of tuna greatly overstates the risk and understates the many essential health benefits of tuna.

As an obstetrician, I have made it my business to stay on top of the research that will affect the well-being of moms-to-be and their developing children. I am proud to serve as an advisor to the US Tuna Foundation, which shares a similar commitment to providing consumers with the most accurate and up-to-date information.

Tuna, especially chunk light canned tuna, is a safe, nutritious and low-cost source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids, both of which are essential for healthy prenatal development. Articles like Dr. Shulman’s present incomplete facts that I fear will have the unfortunate consequence of scaring women away from eating fish including tuna – an essential part of a healthy diet.

The US Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency have thoroughly studied mercury content in fish and have repeatedly encouraged women who are pregnant, are nursing, or are planning to become pregnant against eliminating fish from their diets, but to instead moderate their intake to 12 ounces per week of lower-mercury fish, like canned light tuna, and to six ounces of canned albacore.

The FDA’s recommendations are supported by the March of Dimes, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Heart Association. Yet 95 percent of women of childbearing age (15-44) eat less than 5 ounces of tuna a week. This means that most women are consuming tuna well below FDA recommended levels.

Everyday we learn more about the health benefits of tuna. Studies prove that children whose mothers have higher blood levels of the omega-3 fatty acid DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) – found at high levels in tuna – at birth have better attention spans as early as four months, and then exhibit greater cognitive abilities at three and five years. Additionally, pregnant women with low-levels of DHA experience post-partum depression at a higher rate.

Although fish oil supplements may offer some benefit, they are insufficient substitutes for tuna and other fish; consumers who restrict fish consumption may supplement their diets with more carbohydrates, fatty meats and full-fat dairy products.

Advising pregnant or nursing women and young children not to eat tuna goes against public health agency recommendations, and it goes against science and practical clinical wisdom.

As a medical doctor it is my obligation to present the facts fairly and completely and to prescribe the safest and healthiest course of action: a pregnant woman should eat fish according to FDA guidelines in order to best protect the health of her developing child.

William R Archer, MD
Washington, DC