There’s currently a lot of buzz about the benefits of omega-3s, so we explain why they’re vital for you and your developing baby
First, it helps to know the 3 classes of fat. Saturated fat is found in animal fats, palm and coconut oils, mono-unsaturated fat in olive oil, nuts and avocados, and polyunsaturated fat in vegetable oils, oily fish and leafy greens.
While most of us know that saturated fat is linked with heart disease, mono-unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats can actually be good for us. In particular, you may have read about omega-3s and omega-6s – these are the 2 groups of essential fatty acids that make up polyunsaturated fats.
Different omega-3s do different jobs in our bodies. Scientists believe that the 2 most important omega’3s are DHA and EPA. DHA is a key component of cells and membranes, so it’s essential for your baby’s development, particularly his brain and eyes. EPA, on the other hand, helps with nerve and brain signals and regulating your moods.
Aside from these vital functions, more recent research hails these 2 omega-3s as super-nutrients. Some studies suggest they can also cut the risk of cardiovascular and inflammatory disease, help the immune system and even boost intelligence!
However, not everyone is convinced. “While there is some evidence of the benefits, the evidence is inconclusive at this stage,” states Fiona Ford, a dietician at The Centre for Pregnancy Nutrition.
In theory, you can get enough DHA and EPA by eating omega-3-rich foods such as leafy greens (like spinach), vegetable oils (such as flax, hemp and rapeseed), soya and walnuts. But if you also eat a lot of sugar, caffeine and junk food, you have high cholesterol, or your diet is lacking in minerals, this can inhibit the absorption of the important oils into your system. So many of us are probably lacking in omega-3. While Fiona says there are no obvious symptoms of a deficiency, some nutritionists have suggested that poor skin condition; dandruff, mild depression and ‘pregnancy brain’ are possible signs.
Apart from the foods mentioned above, oily fish (salmon, trout, herring, sardines, mackerel and fresh tuna) have high levels of DHA and EPA and are by far the best natural sources. However, while oily fish is nutritionally good for you, it is thought that you should limit your intake during pregnancy due to concerns about pollutants. The Food Standards Agency currently advises no more than 2 portions of oily fish a week, and shark, swordfish and marlin should be avoided altogether because of concerns over mercury levels. Other white fish, like cod and haddock, doesn’t need to be limited.
A portion of oily fish provides 2 – 3g of DHA and EPA, so 2 weekly portions would comfortably provide the daily 450mg that some doctors and nutritionists believe most people require. But it is thought that pregnant women may need more than this – particularly during the third trimester when your baby’s brain is growing fast. If you’re concerned that you’re not getting enough omega-3 from your diet, and don’t want to go over your 2-portion oily fish limit, there are purified fish oil capsules that are designed for pregnancy. Avoid cod liver oils, and look for supplements that contain both EPA and DHA. Strengths of supplements can vary, though, so it’s best to seek advice from a doctor or nutritionist to decide what’s suitable.
There are now fish-oil fortified foods available, such as bread, margarine, yoghurt, juices and snack bars. Fiona points out, though that “Many can taste a little fishy, and that can make some pregnant women feel more nauseous than they already might.” Some also provide very little omega-3 per serving, so read labels carefully. “Omega-3 eggs from chickens fed an omega-3 rich diet are a good option,” says Fiona.
It’s important to keep up your omega-3 intake after giving birth too. Not only will DHA pass into your breast milk and continue to aid your baby’s growth, vision and neurological development, but your own levels may also need a boost after all that hard work!
Fiona Ford from The Centre for Pregnancy Nutrition on oily fish as a source of omega-3:
“There is evidence that women who eat large amounts of oily fish are less likely to have premature deliveries and low birth-weight babies. But because of the dangers of toxins and pollutants, it is recommended that pregnant women should eat no more than 2 portions of oily fish a week.”
(140g = 1 portion)
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