Omega 3 - important for pregnancy?
Updated: Mar 17, 2019
Its a nutrient that's in the back of our minds that we should be having more of, but it often gets forgotten … and why do we need it anyway?
Lets take a look at why this nutrient is so important for us to have during pregnancy …
What is Omega 3?
Omega 3 is a type of fat, and it comes in various different forms, with the main ones being:
Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA)
Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA)
Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)
Why are they important?
Omega 3 fats are good fats that are very important for your baby's growth and development (particularly of the brain, eyes and nervous system).
EPA supports the heart, immune system, and inflammatory response.
DHA supports the brain, eyes, and central nervous system.
Having omega 3 -rich food in your diet can be beneficial throughout your pregnancy, but babies brains grow rapidly during the 3rd trimester, so this is a good time to really make sure you are having foods rich in Omega 3.
Which foods should I eat?
You can get omega 3 fats from vegetarian sources such as vegetables oils (walnut oil, rapeseed oil), linseeds/Flaxseed, nuts & seeds, but this form of Omega 3 needs to undergo a conversion in the body to EPA and DHA before it can be incorporated into our bodies cell structures, and unfortunately, the conversion rate is fairly low at 8-20%.
A richer source of omega 3 is OILY FISH. This provides omega 3 in the form of EPA and DHA for use by the body as important building blocks that can help support the heart, brain and eyes.
Oily fish includes Salmon, Herring, Whitebait, Swordfish, Sardines, Mackeral, Kippers, Pilchards, Trout, Fresh Crab (white meat). Not only are they rich in omega 3, they are also a good source of protein, vitamin D, iodine, Zinc. There is also smaller amounts of Omega 3 in white fish such as cod, haddock, plaice, pollack, dover sole.
Some brands of foods have omega 3 added to them such as eggs, yoghurt milk and some spreads which can be a useful way to boost intake.
It’s not all good news though …
Due to the various pollutants or high mercury levels, it is recommended that the number of portions of certain types of fish are limited or avoided during pregnancy:
Avoid shark, Marlin ,Swordish due to the affects on the development of your baby's nervous system, and limit intake to 1 portion per week if breastfeeding
No more than 2 portions of oily fish per week (1 portion = 140g)
No more than 4 medium cans per week
White fish is usually ok, but there are a few to avoid: Sea bream, Sea bass, Turbo, halibut, rock salmon and brown crab meat as they contain similar levels of pollutants as oily fish
No raw shellfish due to the potential to cause food poisoning.
Cooked shellfish is ok, with mussels, oysters, squid and crab (white meat) considered good sources of omega 3. They are also a good source of selenium, Zinc, iodine, copper.
Some types of Sushi are ok to have, providing it has been frozen for at least 4 days before eating it. This is because, occasionally raw fish can have parasistic worms that can make you unwell, but the freezing process can kill the parasitic worms.
Sushi made in supermarket should be ok as it has usually undergone the freezing process.
Smoked salmon is also ok, as the smoking process kills any parasitic worms in fish (Salting or pickling also has the same effect)
Its important to think about sustainability when choosing to eat oily fish, due to the rapidly declining fish stocks, and try to choose fish that has been labelled with Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).
How much should we eat?
There is no specific guidance in the UK as to how Omega 3 we should be eating, but it is recommended that everyone should try to eat 2 portions of fish weekly, 1 one of which should be oily fish (equivalent to 450mg/d of EPA/DHA)
The European Food Safety Authority have recommended adequate intakes of between 250mg of EPA & DHA (slightly higher during pregnancy and breastfeeding), and intakes of DHA upto 1g/d does not raise safety concerns in the general population.
There isn’t any confirmed evidence to suggest that everyone should take an omega 3 supplement during pregnancy, however, if you would like to take a nutritional supplement to boost intake of omega 3, you can do this providing you check the box (or speak to the pharmacist) to ensure if is suitable for Pregnancy. (Some of these supplements such as cod liver oil are not recommended in pregnancy due to the high vitamin A (Retinol) content which can damage your baby).
What if I don't eat fish?
There are still ways to get enough omega 3 in your diet from vegetarian sources, and these will provide ALA, the essential fatty acid that your body can convert into EPA and DHA for use in the body. Again, there aren't any specific guidelines in the UK, but the European Food Safety Authority suggests 0.5% of energy intake, and American guidelines suggest intakes of 1.1g (women) and 1.6g (men), 1.4g during pregnancy and breastfeeding of ALA daily.
To put this into food terms, you could meet your requirements by:
- 6 walnut halves OR
- 3/4 tbsp ground flaxseed OR
- 1 tbsp chia seeds OR
- 2 fortified eggs + 1 tbsp walnut oil
What do you think?
So there are certainly points to be aware, in terms of the potential dangers associated with oily fish intake, however, please take on board the potential benefits - for you & your baby - of including a portion of oily fish or other omega rich food in your diet weekly, during pregnancy and breastfeeding (if this is what you decide), as it could be worth it.
Why not keep things simple and try to aim to have 2 portions of fish in your diet weekly, one of which can be an oily fish (140g) - perhaps in a fish pie, some fish cakes, or grilled with a portion of salad & jacket potato? This will provide your baby with a good source of protein, zinc, iodine, selenium and omega 3s to help them on their way through their powerful & fascinating journey of development.