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Pregnancy Diet Hot Buttons: Mercury & Soy

By Amalah

Hi Amy

After years of one or both of us being in school or not quite having enough money, my husband and I are finally ready to have a baby! I am super excited about the prospect of getting pregnant. I have (mostly because of my academic background but also because I have always been really interested) read a ton of books about pregnancy and labor and delivery, and we plan on (probably) having a home birth. My problem is that I don’t really like the technomedical model of birth and prenatal care, but I’m not so hippy-tree-hugger to buy into quite all of the spiritual midwifery type of framework either. I want some reliable information on nutrition before and during pregnancy that is not just crazy scare tactics.

One question in particular I have is about protein. I know my diet now is a bit too meat-centric, so I want to start eating more fish and tofu, but I have concerns about mercury (in fish) and hormones (in tofu). Can you give me a reasonable explanation about these foods, and anything else I should eat/not eat while trying/getting pregnant, and also any resources you find particularly reliable?


I have a vague memory of wandering down to the pregnancy aisle of the bookstore, once upon a time, with the specific purpose of Buying A Book About Food And Diet And Stuff. Which I did not end up doing, because I found all of the offerings alternatively preachy, unrealistic or crazy guilt-inducing. They just…all expected you to be so GOOD, all the time, you know? I mean, sure, fine: a daily breakfast of an egg-white omelette with whole-grain toast and a fresh-fruit smoothie is certainly a better option than a cup of coffee and five strips of microwaved Trader Joe’s turkey bacon. I KNOW THIS. But do I really need the guilt of being told in excruciating detail just how I’m depriving my embryo of EVERYTHING IT NEEDS IN LIFE because I’m throwing up everything other than chicken nuggets, so CHICKEN NUGGETS IT IS?

General Pregnancy Nutrition Approach

Anyway. Point is: I will have to leave book recommendations up to the commenters, because I have always ended up approaching pregnancy nutrition the same way I approach non-pregnancy nutrition, without going from one singular source or definitive guide to the Dos and the Do Nots. Common sense, general wariness of overly processed, chemical-laden foods, a preference for simple, homemade options full of Actual Pronounceable Things, yet providing a wide aisle of cutting myself a break when dealing with irrational cravings and aversions…peppered with some targeted online research (albeit with my b.s. detector turned up to 11).

Kinda the way I view the whole breast vs. bottle debate. Yes, breast is best, but in the end, it’s more important that you FEED THE BABY. Same goes for many of the high-aiming “perfect” diet plans for pregnancy. Yes! Carrot sticks and leafy greens are a very healthy snack choice! But leftover Easter candy is ALSO VERY DELICIOUS.

Pregnancy Diet: Mercury in Protein

So. Let’s move on to your protein questions. First up, fish. Mercury in fish (which can affect brain and nervous system development) is a very real thing, but luckily not in all fish. You just need to bookmark some handy lists and go from there. Here’s a list of high vs. low mercury levels in fish, and another one specifically for sushi varieties (yes, sushi!), both courtesy of the American Pregnancy Association. As you can see, there are only four types of fish that should be avoided completely because of mercury levels: shark, king mackerel, swordfish and tilefish. Ahi or bigeye tuna is also considered high mercury…but other tuna varieties, like yellowfin or canned albacore or chunk light, can be consumed in moderation. (Lots more details about what, exactly, equals “moderation” at that first link.) I personally have eaten the occasional tuna-fish sandwich based on these same frequency guidelines, and continued to eat lower- or lowest-mercury fish like salmon, trout, tilapia, bass, shrimp, scallops…and occasionally even lobster and oysters throughout my pregnancies. We also go for wild-caught as opposed to farm-raised, which in general tend to have higher mercury levels.

Tuna sashimi, however — my absolute favorite favorite — I steer clear of, but have since made it my regular official First Meal of Choice after giving birth and coming home from the hospital. (You still want to watch your mercury levels while breastfeeding, but it doesn’t pose nearly the danger to your baby via breastmilk as it does in the womb, and one pig-out-fest is not going to equal doom and destruction.)

Pregnancy Diet: Soy in Protein

Now. Soy. This one is a bit more…contested, I suppose, as there’s a lot of conflicting info and studies and cries of corruption and influence and fear-mongering on both sides. You don’t see “soy” listed among the usual “Is It Safe?” suspects on pregnancy sites like aspartame or caffeine, so what’s the deal?

Personally, in my family, we do not eat much soy. We never have, and probably never will, since I have read enough to make me cautious and skeptical about soy’s place as a healthy food choice. In a bloggy nutshell, here’s a good overview of The Problem With Soy. (Go read it. I’ll wait.)

So we do not substitute soy as a primary protein in our house. We don’t buy soy milk or soy ice cream or soy formula or soy cheese or oh my God what DON’T they make out of soy these days? If I do buy the occasional block of tofu or edamame or soy sauce, I always buy certified organic that is clearly marked as containing no GMOs (genetically modified organisms), thus at least removing one big personal concern of mine. My second child, Ezra, likes frozen edamame beans, and tofu does make a nice toddler finger-food or binder for homemade veggie burger patties…but he also likes frozen peas and regular old black beans, and I’ve found that mashed lentils and/or ground oatmeal work just as well in those burger recipes.

For non-meat-based meals, we usually opt for stews and curries with lots of beans and lentils — a nice Indian-style daal, served over rice or another grain, and even my mega-carnivore husband doesn’t see the point of adding meat substitute or soy crumbles or whatever the hell. Since we’re fortunate enough to be allergy-free, we eat a LOT of nuts for snacks. Cashews, almonds, walnuts — I buy them raw and unsalted and toast and/or mix them with dried fruit myself to avoid the crazy sodium/preservative levels found in a lot of commercially-packed trail mixes.

Again, it’s probably more about moderation than anything else. I’m content that my family gets enough protein from a wide range of sources throughout the week to skip the soy patties and such. We’re not vegans or even vegetarians, which admittedly makes the dilemma much easier since I don’t have to go and replace entire food groups. If you are concerned about your red meat intake, try stepping down gradually, substituting ground turkey or bison for ground beef. (We use turkey or bison almost exclusively now for those quickie weeknight staples of burgers, chili, tacos, etc.) Eat fish from the low-mercury lists with confidence and a squeeze of fresh lemon. Focus on finding some really killer and not-fried-or-drenched-in-dairy chicken recipes, try some lentil or bean curries in the Crock Pot, or grab some almonds tossed in sea salt instead of the entire bag of potato chips.

But if you find yourself nine weeks pregnant and barfing into the toilet at the mere thought of ANY of these foods, well, I will personally come and draw a Circle Of Back Off No Judgment around you if you decide that a dinner of summer sausage, canned black olives and a can of Coke is about all you can handle that day. BECAUSE LO I HAVE BEEN THERE GIRLFRIEND.


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About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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