We explain why essential fatty acids such as Omega 3 & Omega 6 are important for your baby's development during pregnancy.
What are EFAs?
There are three different types of fat; saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated and it is the latter group which are commonly referred to as EFAs (essential fatty acids). These can be split into Omega 3 and Omega 6 and play an essential role in maintaining your health, growth and development. EFAs aren't synthesised by the body so its important to include Omega rich foods in your diet, especially during pregnancy.
Why are they important?
Omega 6 fatty acids are important for maintaining balanced hormonal function, healthy skin, hair and nails and can even help to lower cholesterol. We typically consume far larger quantities of these fats in our diet than Omega 3s which are in some ways more important as they play an essential role in the development of your baby's brain, retina's and nervous system. However, as EFAs compete for use in the body its important to achieve a balanced intake of both omega 3 and 6 fatty acids.
As an expectant mother you are your baby's only source of these essential fats so it is important to supplement your own diet so that you do not become deficient, especially as research has linked low EFA consumption with a higher risk of preterm birth, low birth weight and preeclampsia. Additionally, consuming plenty of Omega rich foods during pregnancy has been found to help protect against postnatal depression.
After your baby arrives, omega fats are passed on via breastmilk and so by breastfeeding you are continuing help to encourage your baby's healthy development. There is also a growing body of evidence that links the level of Omega 3 consumed by a mother in pregnancy (and when breastfeeding) with her child's IQ, hand eye coordination and attention span. What's more, Omega 3 deficiency is also thought to play a role in the learning and emotional difficulties that are becoming increasingly common in children of today.
How to top up in pregnancy
There are two varieties of Omega 3 fatty acids, long-chain and short-chain. Its the long chain varieties (DHA & EPA) which play an essential role in the development and maintenance of neural tissue; these are found most abundantly in fresh fish and fish oil. The shorter chain Omega 3 fats (ALA) are derived from plant sources and also play an important role in your baby's development as these can be combined by the body to mimic the longer chained varieties.
The best way to boost your Omega 3 intake is by eating 2 portions of oily fish such as salmon, mackerel or tuna a week, although if you find this difficult or aren't too keen on fish you could supplement your diet with a fish oil. However, care is needed as many of the Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acid supplements available in the shops are made from fish livers (i.e. cod liver oil). These are not suitable for consumption during pregnancy as they contain high levels of retinal vitamin A which has been associated with birth defects. A safer alternative for expectant mothers are supplements derived from the bodies of fish.
Alternatively, flax (taken as a seed or oil) is an excellent source of Omega 3 and walnuts and green leafy vegetables can also be used to supplement this in vegetarian or vegan diets. Roughly 2 tablespoons of flax a day is needed to provide the required levels of Omega 3; this does sound a lot however it can easily be mixed into breakfast cereal (the milled variety is best for this) or used in cooking.
Omega 6 fatty acids can be found in the vegetable and sunflower oils, pumpkin seeds and nuts although supplementation is rarely needed in a typical UK diet.
So, by eating a balanced diet that includes plenty of essential fatty acids throughout your pregnancy and beyond you will be helping to encourage your baby's healthy development and doing something positive for your own body.
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