If you are planning a pregnancy, it’s a great time to take stock of your diet to ensure that you are getting the right nutrients to support both you and your baby. Are you taking a 400 microgram folic acid supplement, consuming 5 or more portions of fruit and vegetables, getting enough Vitamin D and calcium? However, did you know that pregnant and breastfeeding women also need additional omega-3 in their diet, and in particular an omega-3 called Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)?
Both the brain and eye (retina) are very rich in DHA which is important for both structure and function. During pregnancy, and particularly in the last trimester, the baby’s brain accumulates large amounts of DHA. This building continues during the first two years of life and even beyond. Like many nutrients, this DHA comes directly from the mother, either through the placenta for the growing foetus or from breastmilk when babies are breastfed. Hence, the mother’s intake of DHA supports the normal development of the eye and brain of the foetus and breastfed infant.
"The mother’s intake of DHA supports the normal development of the eye and brain of the foetus and breastfed infant"
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recommends that during pregnancy women need an additional 200mg per day of DHA to support this growth1. This is on top of their own need for 250mg of EPA &DHA for general heart health. Plant based food (with the exception of algae that do contain DHA) is not a reliable source of DHA as there is only limited conversion of the plant based omega-3 (alpha-linolenic acid; found in rapeseed oil, nuts and flaxseeds) to DHA.
One of the issues with getting enough of the omega-3’s EPA and DHA is that there are few sources in the diet. Oily fish is a rich source of EPA and DHA but during pregnancy it is generally advised that women consume no more than 2 portions per week due to possible contamination with heavy metals. Fish like Marlin, Shark and Swordfish are not advised to be consumed at all during pregnancy.
"During pregnancy, women need an additional 200mg per day of DHA, on top of their own need for 250mg of EPA & DHA for general heart health"
However, in Western countries, consumption of oily fish is generally lower than recommended. Recent dietary surveys in pregnant women also confirm that they are not getting the necessary amount of DHA during this time 2-4. Less than 50% of Dutch women and 30% of Canadian women were consuming the necessary amount of omega-3 in their diet but taking a DHA supplement significantly improved the likelihood that the group would meet recommendations3-4.
So if you are contemplating a pregnancy or in the early stages of pregnancy it’s a good time to think about your diet. What you consume is more important now than ever so take stock of whether you are getting the DHA you need from your diet and if not consider a pure omega-3 supplement specifically tailored for pregnancy.
- EFSA. Scientific Opinion on Dietary Reference Values for fats, including saturated fatty acids, polyunsaturated fatty acids, monounsaturated fatty acids, trans fatty acids, and cholesterol
- Eickstaedt M et al. N Z Med J. New Zealand women have suboptimal intakes of long chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids during pregnancy-a cross sectional study.2017 Sep 22;130(1462):37-45.
- Jia X et al. Women who take n-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid supplements during pregnancy and lactation meet the recommended intake. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2015 May;40(5):474-81. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2014-0313. Epub 2015 Mar 25.
- Looman M et al. Supplement Use and Dietary Sources of Folate, Vitamin D, and n-3 Fatty Acids during Preconception: The GLIMP2 Study. Nutrients. 2018 Jul 25;10(8). pii: E962. doi: 10.3390/nu10080962.