What do fish, leafy greens and walnuts have in common? They all contain essential omega-3 fatty acids that cannot be produced by our bodies and therefore must be present in diet. Here's how to make sure you and your family are getting enough, whether you're pregnant, breastfeeding, or even just trying to raise healthy kids.
What are omega-3's?
There are three main omega-3 fatty acids. Two of them, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), are critical for brain development, retinal health, and the cardiovascular and immune systems. Some observational research links higher IQ scores, less behavioral problems, and better communication skills in children with their mothers' higher intake of DHA and EPA during pregnancy. In the period of fast growth, especially in the third trimester, fetuses depend on their mothers to get enough of these important nutrients. Since mom's supply has to come from her diet, it's crucial that expecting women eat enough.
DHA and EPA are found in fish and shellfish, fish oil supplements, and, in small amounts, in omega-3 eggs. Some types of milk and orange juice are also fortified with small amounts of DHA.
Foods like flaxseed, canola oil, English walnuts, soybean oil, and leafy greens have a different form of omega-3 called ALA (alpha linolenic acid). Although our bodies can convert the plant form of omega-3, ALA to EPA and DHA, we don't do it very efficiently and the conversion rates are very low, especially for DHA. As a result, ALA cannot be a substitute for DHA in pregnant women and young children.
Are pregnant moms getting enough?
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that everyone, including expectant and lactating moms, consume 500mg of omega-3 fatty acids daily. This guideline translates into two portions or up to 12oz of omega-3 rich seafood per week.
But we are falling below the recommended amounts. Recent surveys report that most pregnant women are not eating enough DHA and EPA-rich fish and seafood. Most women fear eating fish because of their concern about mercury and other environmental contaminants that may be present in fish.
Smart ways to boost omega-3's in your diet
Here are some tips to help you get enough omega-3's so that you can give your baby the best start:
- Choose better fish. Warnings about mercury can scare you away from eating any seafood. But you can minimize exposure to this toxic metal and other environmental contaminants by avoiding predatory species like swordfish, tilefish, shark and king mackerel.Instead, enjoy up to 12 oz weekly of consistently safe options like shrimp, scallops, sardines, herring, wild salmon and trout. These sustainable fish are not only low in mercury but also high in Omega 3s.
- Think outside the "dinner" box. Fancy some omega-3's for breakfast? Why not! Serve some cooked salmon on a bagel or alongside your scrambled eggs. At lunchtime, choose a tuna sandwich or swap the chicken for shrimp in your salad for a boost of beneficial DHA and EPA.
- Read the labels. If milk and juice are fortified with DHA, the amount is usually specified on the label. Although it is not likely that you will get lots of DHA from these beverages (only around 30mg per serving), it may be just the extra boost you need to meet the recommendations. The labels on fortified eggs, on the other hand, typically specify only the total amount of omega-3"²s so it is harder to figure out how much DHA and EPA you're actually getting.
- Go plants. Make sure to explore the plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids, such as the oils of flax, canola, hemp and soy, as well as walnuts, chia, hemp, flax seeds (ground), and green leafy vegetables. Just be aware that since the plant form of omega-3s (ALA) is not converted into DHA and EPA efficiently, these foods cannot be used as the only source of omega-3"²s in your diet when you are expecting.
- Be cautious with supplements. A recent statement from the FDA does not recommend taking omega-3 supplements as a substitute for eating fish due to a lack of solid evidence that they produce similar benefits. But many health professionals continue recommending supplements to expectant mothers. Some research still links them with positive outcomes, and supplements are a fairly safe way to boost omega-3's for vegans or those failing to eat the recommended amount of fish.
If you choose to buy a supplement, ask your doctor or a dietitian to help you decide on the right dose based on your health history and medication and supplement use. Also remember that the actual amounts of DHA and EPA are almost never listed on the front label and you would need to read the small print at the back and do some calculations to see what you are paying for. The "Total Omega-3" number featured at the front label is basically meaningless.
Not sure about the safety of omega-3 supplements? Check their ranking by Labdoor, an independent scientific and technology startup that tests dozens of supplements in its labs.
Natalia Stasenko MS, RD, CDN is a pediatric dietitian based in London and New York. A mother of three, she is passionate about feeding kids of all ages. Natalia contributed her nutritional expertise to the cookbook Real Baby Food, and when not writing, teaching online feeding classes or consulting, she is in the kitchen cooking and eating with her family. Follow Natalia on Twitter, read more of her stories on www.tribecanutrition.com and download her guide on Smart Snacks That Help Kids Eat Dinner here.
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