Folate has long been acknowledged as a necessity for expectant women, or women even thinking about pregnancy, because of its ability to lower a baby’s risk of being born with spina bifida or other neural tube defects.
Recently, researchers have concluded that omega-3 fatty acids may be similarly valuable in an unborn baby’s development. A recent study has found that a specific type of omega-3 fatty acid, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), improves a baby’s brain development. Two other studies on omega-3 fatty acids found that pregnant women who consume omega-3s give birth to babies with a lower risk of food allergies and eczema. This follows earlier research that suggested a low intake of omega-3 fatty acids could increase the risk of mothers having an early delivery.
Certain types of fish are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids (specifically DHA and EPA), which experts believe are important for your baby’s brain and eye development. Cold-water fish – also referred to as fatty fish – contain the highest amounts of omega-3s.
In general, it’s better to get your nutrients from food – that way you’ll benefit from other nutrients in the food at the same time. But chances are you’re not eating enough of the right fish to give you a significant dose of omega-3s, particularly if you’re trying to avoid fish that’s high in mercury.
In fact, unless you’re eating a significant amount of oily fish – such as 5 ounces of salmon, 14 ounces of rainbow trout, or 16 sardines – each week, you’ll probably have to get your omega-3s somewhere else.
You can’t get what you need from fish sticks and canned chunk light tuna. They’re low in mercury but are not a good source of omega-3s.
The other kind of canned tuna – solid white albacore – provides a somewhat higher dose of omega-3s, but it also tends to be higher in mercury, so some experts recommend that pregnant women avoid it. (The Food and Drug Administration recommends limiting your intake of solid white tuna to 6 ounces per week.)
You may have heard that flaxseed is a good source of omega-3s, but plant foods contain only the fatty acid ALA, which has not been proven to provide the health benefits of DHA and EPA.
Many foods – such as eggs, milk, soy beverages, juice, yogurt, bread, cereal, and margarine – are now fortified with omega-3s. Some don’t contain very much DHA or EPA, but small amounts can add up. Look for products that contain at least 50 milligrams of DHA per serving.
Supplements may be an easier way to get a good dose of omega-3s. Most experts think you should get about 300 milligrams (mg) of DHA a day during pregnancy. I recommend taking a daily supplement with 200 mg of DHA, since you should be able to get the rest through food, even if you don’t eat any fish. Choose a brand that also contains some EPA. (There’s no consensus on how much EPA you need.)
Many omega-3 supplements contain fish oil, and most of them are virtually mercury-free. Mercury binds to proteins (the meat of the fish), but not to fats, where the oil comes from. In addition, supplement manufacturers use fish that are low in mercury. Some also distill the oil to remove contaminants.
Steer clear of fish oil supplements made from cod liver oil, however. Although cod liver oil is a good source of omega-3s, it contains amounts of vitamin A that are potentially toxic during pregnancy.
Fish oil supplements come in liquid, soft chews, and soft gel form, and some are flavored to mask the fishiness.
Other omega-3 supplements are derived from algae rather than fish. I particularly like this option. These supplements have no mercury and no fishy aftertaste, and they’re even appropriate for vegetarians.