Once upon a time in a vast ocean, life evolved. And then, over many millions of years, neurons and spinal cords and eyes developed, nourished all the while in a gentle bath of nutrients and algae.
Our brains and eyes are distant descendants of those early nervous systems formed in the sea. And even though our ancestors eventually sprouted legs and waddled out of the ocean, the neural circuitry of modern humans is still dependent on certain nutrients that their water-logged predecessors had in abundance.
This obscure fact about a distant evolution has recently turned into a major annoyance for me now that I’m pregnant. In fact, whether they know it or not, all pregnant women are trapped in a no-win dilemma over what they put into their stomachs. Take, for instance, a popular guidebook for pregnant women. On one page, it advocates eating lots of seafood while pregnant, explaining that fish contain key nutrients that the developing eyes and brains of the fetus will need. A few pages later, however, the author warns that seafood contains methylmercury, a neurotoxic pollutant, and that fish intake should be strictly curtailed. What is a well-meaning pregnant lady to do?
On a visceral level, nothing sounds worse than poisoning your child with mercury, and so many women reduce their seafood intake while pregnant. I have spoken with women who cut all seafood out of their diet while pregnant, for fear that a little exposure could prove to be too much. They had good reason to be worried. Extreme methylmercury poisoning episodes in Japan and Iraq in past decades have shown that excessive methylmercury intake during pregnancy can cause developmental delays, deafness, blindness, and seizures in the babies exposed.
But what happens if pregnant women eliminate seafood from their diet altogether? Without careful supplementation of vital nutrients found in marine ecosystems, children face neural setbacks or developmental delays on a massive scale. Consider deficiencies in iodine, a key nutrient readily found in seafood. Its scarcity in the modern land-based diet was causing mental retardation in children – and sparked the creation of iodized salt (salt supplemented with iodine) to ensure that the nutritional need was met.
Perhaps the hardest nutrient to get without seafood is an omega-3 fatty acid known as DHA. In recent years, scientists have learned that this particular fatty acid is essential for proper brain development and functioning, yet it is almost impossible to get from non-aquatic dietary sources. At the grocery store, you’ll find vegetarian products that claim to fill those needs by supplying the biochemical precursor to DHA (found in flaxseed, walnuts, and soybean oils), but we now know that the precursor simply won’t cut it. Our bodies are remarkably slow at synthesizing DHA from its precursor. In fact, we burn the vast majority of the precursor for energy before we have the chance to convert it to DHA.
So pregnant women must eat food from marine sources if they are to meet all the needs of their growing babies. Yet thanks to global practices of burning coal and disposing of industrial and medical waste, any seafood women eat will expose their offspring to some amount of methylmercury. There’s no simple solution to this problem, although recent studies suggest that child outcomes are best when women consume ample seafood while avoiding species with higher levels of methylmercury (such as shark, tilefish, walleye, pike, and some types of tuna). Of course much is still unknown. Exactly how much DHA intake is enough? And since mercury levels vary based on where the fish was caught and what waste was released nearby, you can never be sure it’s safe to eat.
Unless we start cleaning up our oceans, pregnant women will continue to face this awful decision each time they sit down at the dinner table. Far worse, we may face future generations with lower IQs and developmental delays regardless of which choice their mothers make. Thanks to shoddy environmental oversight, we may be saddling our children with brains that don’t work as well as our own. And that is something I truly can’t swallow.