Q: Can you please explain the importance of omega-3s and DHA, in particular? As a pregnant woman, I know I should have these essential fats in my diet but how much and what are the best sources? I am not a vegetarian but don’t care for fish. Are supplements a good alternative? Any guidance you can share would be appreciated.
A: Excellent question, Jennifer! Understanding omega-3s can be confusing, so do not worry…you are not alone.
Omega-3’s are essential fatty acids. This means that our bodies need them but cannot make them organically; therefore, we need to ingest them through food. Unfortunately, most Americans do not get nearly enough omega-3s in their diet.
There are three forms of omega-3’s: ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). All provide significant health benefits, but the most important for your growing baby is DHA. DHA is the dominant fat found in the brain and is part of every brain cell, making it of great importance to the neurological development of your baby during pregnancy, infancy, and the first few years of life. Studies show that DHA begins playing a role in brain development as early as the 24th week of pregnancy. DHA also plays a vital role in the development of your baby’s vision and central nervous system.
The recommended intake of DHA is 200-300 mg/day for pregnant and nursing women.
DHA is available in a preformed version, meaning it is ready to be used by the body, or it can be converted from ALA. The preformed DHA is found in seafood, algae, supplements, and fortified foods. The body can make DHA from the ALA found in other omega-3 sources such as flaxseed, but it is estimated that only 10% of the ALA actually gets converted to DHA, making it a less impactful source.
If you are looking to boost your intake of DHA, here are a few suggestions:
Natural Sources of DHA:
- Seafood* (particularly oily, cold water fish such as salmon or herring)
- Flaxseed (via ALA)
- Hemp seeds (via ALA)
- Chia seeds (via ALA)
Breast milk is an excellent source of DHA for your baby
*Pregnant and nursing women (as well as those in their childbearing years) should avoid varieties of fish that have the highest potential of mercury contaminant: swordfish, tilefish, king mackerel, and shark. Those lower in mercury include: shrimp, canned light tuna (limit albacore, or white, tuna to 6 oz. weekly), salmon (wild caught is preferred as it is antibiotic free, has less overall fat and higher levels of omega-3’s), sardines, pollock, catfish, and tilapia. For a more complete list of the safest fish to eat during pregnancy and nursing, please visit the Environmental Working Group’s web site.
- Fish oil (in oil or pill form – some of my favorites are Nordic Naturals Prenatal DHA and Barlean’s Ultra DHA
- Algae oil (good for vegetarians)
- Krill oil (from a shrimp-like crustacean)
- Flaxseed oil (via ALA)
- Eggland’s Best eggs
- Horizon Organic Milk Plus DHA Omega-3
- Silk Soymilk Plus Omega-3 DHA
- Plus many, many more…
The bottom line: DHA is a must for pregnant and nursing women. The best natural source is fish (2 servings a week is ideal), but it is always a good idea to include a supplement each day to ensure that you are meeting your (and your growing baby’s) needs. If you are looking to add some DHA fortified foods to your next shopping list, check the label to ensure that the product contains DHA and not ALA as the omega-3 source.