Omega-3 in pregnancy

Omega-3 fatty acids are known to be good for you and your unborn baby. We explain why - plus which supplements are safe to take, and how best to get Omega-3 in your diet

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There’s already so much to think about when you’re pregnant: can I eat this? Is it safe to take that? Not to mention you’ve got a new regime of folic acid and Vitamin D to take daily.

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Now, you’ve probably already heard of Omega-3, but it’s actually a really good idea to make sure you’re getting plenty of it during pregnancy, too.

So, why is it important to take Omega-3? How is it beneficial to you and your unborn baby? What can you eat that’s got loads of Omega-3 in – and is it easier just to take a supplement?

Here’s everything you need to know about taking Omega-3 in pregnancy…

What is Omega-3?

Omega-3 is tricky to describe, but put very simply: it’s one of the good fats found naturally in vegetable oil, oily fish and leafy greens like spinach.

There are 3 classes of fat typically found in our diets:

  • saturated fat, found in animal fats, palm oil and coconut oil
  • mono-unsaturated fat, found in olive oil, nuts and avocados
  • polyunsaturated fat, found in vegetable oils, oily fish and leafy greens.

Omega-3s and Omega-6s are the 2 groups of essential fatty acids that make up polyunsaturated fats. These are both thought to be pretty good for us, as are mono-unsaturated fats.

(Saturated fats are the ones that aren’t so good, and you may already know they’re linked to things like heart disease.)

Why is Omega-3 important in pregnancy?

Ready for another science lesson? ? To break it down, there are different Omega-3s, that all do different jobs in our bodies.

There are quite a few, but the 2 considered most important are called DHA or EPA.

DHA is a key component of cells and membranes, so it’s essential for your baby’s development, particularly the brain and eyes. EPA, on the other hand, helps with nerve and brain signals and regulating your moods.

Aside from these vital functions, some studies claim these 2 Omega-3s have even more benefits, especially for expectant women and their babies.

One study suggests Omega-3 foods in pregnancy could cut the risk of your little one developing food allergies, and even that eating oily fish in pregnancy could help stop you getting ‘the baby blues‘.

Some studies suggest they can also cut the risk of cardiovascular and inflammatory disease, help the immune system and even boost intelligence.

Keep in mind that, at this time, not enough research has been done to confirm all of this as 100% fact.

Fiona Ford, a dietician at The Centre for Pregnancy Nutrition, agrees: “While there is some evidence of the benefits, the evidence is inconclusive at this stage.”

How do you know if you need more Omega-3s?

Many of us are probably lacking in Omega-3, even if we’re already getting lots of Omega-3 rich foods in our diet.

That’s because consuming a lot of sugar, caffeine and junk food, having high cholesterol, or eating a diet lacking in minerals can inhibit the absorption of the important oils into your system.

Annoyingly, dietician Fiona says there are no obvious symptoms of a deficiency to know for sure…

Which foods have Omega-3 in them?

Foods with naturally high levels DHA and EPA include:

  • salmon
  • trout
  • herring
  • sardines
  • mackerel
  • fresh tuna
  • spinach
  • walnuts
  • soya
  • vegetable oils.

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 reckon most of us need.

As a guide, ISSFAL (the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids) says pregnant and women who are lactating should take 300mg DHA daily (as a minimum).

How much oily fish is safe to eat during pregnancy?

Oily fish is nutritionally very good for you and your baby, and the types mentioned above totally safe to eat during pregnancy.

However, you should enjoy them in moderation, and limit your intake during pregnancy due to concerns about pollutants.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) currently advises no more than 2 portions (140g each) of oily fish a week, something dietician Fiona backs up:

“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.”

Some ‘out there’ types of oily fish aren’t safe to consume in pregnancy. AVOID shark, swordfish and marlin, as they all contain high levels of mercury.

Is it safe to take Omega-3 supplements in pregnancy?

If you’re not a fan of eating fish, or are concerned you’re not getting enough Omega-3 from diet alone, you can opt to add a supplement to your routine.

They’re totally optional, and are safe to take during pregnancy, as long as you:

  • avoid cod liver oil supplements
  • avoid any supplements containing Vitamin A.

We should add here that unlike folic acid and Vitamin D, Omega-3 supplements are not outright recommended for pregnant women by the NHS.

So, have a little chat with your GP or midwife before picking some out, so they can recommend the dosage they think’s best for you.

Interestingly, some foods are actually supplemented with fish oil now, including bread, margarine, yoghurt, juices and snack bars.

Sounds a bit yucky? It could well be! Fiona points out that some may taste a bit fishy, saying: “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,” she adds.

Do I need Omega-3s after I’ve given birth?

Keeping up your Omega-3 intake after giving birth is a really good idea, especially if you’re breastfeeding.

DHA will pass into your breast milk and continue to aid your baby’s growth, vision and neurological development.

You’ll also need all the nutrients you can get, especially as new motherhood is such a tiring time. Try to keep up your healthy diet wherever possible ?

Images: Getty Images

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