Otakus Rejoice – You CAN Eat Sushi While Pregnant

11 May


Jonathan and I are currently in Washington State, visiting his parents for the week. The first thing we did after our 13 hour road trip to Washougal, Washington was to stop by Sushi Hana for conveyor belt sushi. Now, this is my second time getting sushi this pregnancy, and I’ve been meaning to write this blog post for some time. It’s an issue that has really, really, REALLY been bugging me. So! Ahem:

Pregnant otakus – rejoice! Yes, you can eat sushi while pregnant. And not just the cooked varieties, but the raw and the mercury bearing tuna as well. There is no scientific evidence that eating sushi in pregnancy increases pregnancy complications or harms your baby in any way.

But despite this lack of evidence that sushi is a horrid baby-killer, once you get knocked up, prepare to be assaulted with an onslaught of advice on how a California roll will kill or harm your child. Personally, I was not prepared for the amount of ignorant, self-righteous (though often well-meaning) advice / bullying that I would receive when I’d mention the dreaded yet oh-so-tasty S-word during this pregnancy.

The misconception behind the whole “forbidden sushi” shtick and the ferocious demands to keep sushi away from your pregnant mouth hole, is a common Western misunderstanding of what sushi is and how it is prepared. The “sushi=bad” myth stems from the simple fact that raw fish can contain bacteria and can cause a foodborne illness.

However, these organisms – along with a host of others – are not a concern when eating raw sushi, because sushi is not just raw fish. It is a prepared fish.

United States food laws require that fish used in sushi restaurants must be flash frozen to kill any parasites that may or may not be in the fish. Flash freezing kills parasites as sure as cooking would.  Additionally, if you have ever been to a Japanese restaurant or sushi bar, you know that the art behind sushi making is nigh ritualistic. The chefs carefully handle and store the fish to make sure it is safe to eat, and the fish comes from reputable dealers who make sure it was raised in a healthy environment.

According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the top three pathogen-commodity pairs (germs and foods) responsible for the most outbreak-related illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths are: Raw eggs, sprouts and raw vine-stalk vegetables. Lettuce and salad accounted for 28 percent of reported food-poisoning outbreaks last year alone. (Which is why France has a “Don’t eat raw vegetables and salads while pregnant!” hysteria, not unlike our American “don’t eat sushi while pregnanct!”  hysteria. Only, in Frances conniption fit, they have statistics and facts behind their fears.)

Furthermore, according to the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine, when it comes to fish, about 85% of seafood-related illnesses are caused by eating oysters and clams raw. If you take them out of the equation, out of a nation of 314 million people and all reported sushi-related bacterial caused illnesses, the real risk of contracting an illness from flash frozen seafood is 1 in 1.2 million servings!

When you get down to it, sushi from a reputable bar is one of the safest foods to eat – whether you are pregnant or not. (Common sense would point out that this is why people can eat sushi by the droves all over the United States and not get sick.)

And in the unlikely event that you DO get a foodborne illness while chowing down at a shady sushi bar that gets their seafood from fecal infested waters, it’s really not as big a threat as the hype implies. While a case of salmonella or e. coli certainly isn’t the way you’d want to spend your weekend, in most cases, it won’t actually endanger your pregnancy.

The other concern is mercury poisoning from tuna in sushi. First, not all sushi contains tuna. Second, you can have up to 12 ounces of fish containing mercury per week, every week of your pregnancy, without even coming close to harming yourself or your child. And that mercury rule applies to you when not pregnant as well. It’s all about moderation. And keep in mind, doctors are quick to recommend that you receive a flu shot while pregnant and that contains far more mercury than what you could consume at an all you can eat sushi buffet. And the mercury that is in tuna and sushi fish is not injected into your blood stream- it is ingested, most of this type of mercury is excreted and is not even absorbed in the body.


Eating fish – including raw sushi fish – is part of a healthy diet during pregnancy as long as you eat fish with safe mercury levels.

The British Medical Journal stresses that fish is an extremely important substance to have during pregnancy. Children whose mothers ate fish during their pregnancy had a “higher intelligence quotient” than those who didn’t eat fish, due to omega-3 fatty acids.

In Japan, pregnant women do not stop eating sushi when they become pregnant, and are actually encouraged to continue doing so. Many Japanese pregnancy books suggest eating sushi as part of a healthy, low-fat diet during pregnancy, and are counseled to eat more sushi with B6 vitamins to help combat morning sickness. Japanese tradition also has it that post-partum women get certain kinds of sushi in the hospital during their recovery. Honestly, let’s put two and two together. If sushi makes babies mentally deficient, then all Japanese women are giving birth to a nation of retards. And our nationwide stereotype of computer-savvy camera wielding Japanese kids says otherwise.

Still, rational analysis doesn’t always hold sway with the pregnancy police.

“Why take any risk?” they ask. “Are you really so selfish that you can’t give up sushi for 9 months?” But this kind of thinking – making needless and pointless sacrifices over non-issues, isn’t healthy. It’s the very definition of paranoia. It is sick that the medical establishment and the culture at large have twisted logic around to the point where any risk, no matter how infinitesimal, is too much. So powerful is this Puritanical impulse that, once a health objection is raised, however irrational the recommended behavior, it’s considered irresponsible to behave any other way.

Let’s put things into perspective. Your daily odds of dying (and therefore killing your baby) while taking these risks are –

1 in 25,000 of dying in a car accident

1 in 48,000 of going to work and dying on the job

1 in 54,000 of walking to a destination in lieu of driving and dying by being hit by a car

1 in 158,000 of taking a flight of stairs, tripping, falling and dying

1 in 170,000 of dying in a plane crash

So if taking a 1 in 1.2 million chance of contracting a fetus-killing foodborne illness while munching on healthy omega-3 rich brain food for your baby is a selfish risk taking measure during pregnancy, then it naturally follows that driving, walking, taking stairs or a plane, or working outside of the home is unthinkable. And again, that’s not even touching on the greater risks of killing your baby by eating a SALAD .


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