Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

I tried to get this article written yesterday, but after visiting family in PA last week for Thanksgiving, and coming back with kids who promptly started vomiting from a stomach bug, I've had to adjust my expectations for the week!!
Omega-3 fatty acids will be the last major nutrient in my prenatal nutrition series. When my daughter was born, in 2002, I don't remember reading anything about omega-3 fatty acids; there is no mention of them in the index of them in the Sears' The Pregnancy Book, published in 1997, either. Omega-3's are, I think, relatively new on the scene of nutrition in general, and prenatal nutrition in particular, which is why I wanted to include the following information on them.

Omega-3 fatty acids are an "essential fatty acid". In The Family Nutrition Book, Dr. Sears explains that
"fatty acids are the basic building blocks and the main nutritional component of fats. The body requires about twenty fatty acids in order to live and operate. It can make all but two of these: linolenic (omega-3) and linoleic (omega-6). These are two of the essential fatty acids, so called because they are essential for life and health. They can be supplied only by food or supplements" (4).
In Having a Baby, Naturally, Peggy O'Mara theorizes that our proportion of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids has been reversed over the past several hundred years: instead of more omega-3 fatty acid and less omega-6, most of us now eat many more foods rich in omega-6 and have much less omega-3 fatty acids in our diet. Our ancestors long ago probably had diets high in omega-3 fatty acids from the variety of fish and wild game (who fed on grass and other plants) that made up a lot of their food. Now, many of us consume little wild fish, and the meat we eat has been fed corn (which is high in omega-6 fatty acid). She explains that "some expernts think this may explain the huge increase in heart disease in the twentieth centruy, along with other health problems such as depression, ADD, autism, Alzheimer's disease and more" (24).

Why are omega-3's important?

Omega-3 fatty acids have been linked to a variety of health benefits in the general population, including a reduction in the risks of heart attacks and strokes, lowering the level of bad cholestorol (LDL) and triglycerides, improving eye function as well as lowering the risk of macular degeneration, improving attention span, protection against many cancers, and a reduction in symptoms of inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.

The benefits for a baby whose mother has a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids during pregnancy, and during breastfeeding seem to revolve mostly around brain function. Having a Baby, Naturally author Peggy O'Mara writes that
"omega-3 is particularly important for pregnant women in the third trimester, and for women who are breastfeeding. These are the times when the baby's brain is developing at an amazing rate. Babies deficient in omega-3 may have a higher risk of autism, attention deficit disorder, and depression or adult degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's or Lou Gehrig's disease" (24).
Other sources suggested improved eyesight and possible benefits in baby's behavior, like less crying. I've also heard (anecdotally) that babies whose mothers have a diet high in omega-3 or take supplements sleep better the first three months.

What are good food sources?

  • Oily, cold-water fish (salmon, sardines)
  • Canola oil
  • Flax seeds and flax seed oil
  • Walnuts and walnut oil
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Soybeans (you can get these roasted as a tasty snack...)
  • Hemp seeds
  • Purslane, a leafy vegetable
  • Dark leafy green vegetables
  • Fortified eggs: eggs from hens fed diets that contain omega-3

    A note about flax seeds: flax seeds need to be ground in order to be completely digested. For this reason, flax seed is sometimes sold pre-ground, as flax seed meal. Consider storing the meal in the freezer, because it can turn rancid quickly. I put 1/2 cup of the meal in most bread recipes and many muffin recipes.

    The benefits from eating foods with omega-3's in them make me wish I like fish! What can you do if you don't like fish? These are my strategies:

  • I do feed my children salmon - high-quality frozen wild salmon patties, because I can't stand the smell to prepare anything else.
  • I do a lot of cooking with organic canola oil instead of vegetable oil.
  • I serve walnuts in snacks and trail mixes, as well as grinding them up in the food processor to make "walnut meal" for baked goods like cookies.
  • I sneak the flaxseed meal into lots of baked goods, especially sandwich bread and muffins (I bake our bread, so that's easy for me to do).
  • When I was pregnant and the children were younger, I bought the omega-3 eggs, but now I get our eggs locally from a friend.
  • I buy the omega-3 enriched pasta from Barilla.
  • And, we take supplements.

    If you do like fish, it is important remember that not all sources of fish are wise ones, espcially for pregnant women or young children, since some contain unhealthy levels of mercury. In fact, the FDA guidelines have sometimes been criticized by consumer groups for being "too soft". One of the only controversial "moments" in one of my classes was from a dad who was very well-informed about the dangers of mercury in fish, and who advocated that pregnant women avoid tuna altogether because of mercury concerns. Until then (especially because I do not eat tuna), I was unaware that the FDA guidelines were considered incomplete and/or too leniant by many consumer watchdog groups.
    If you eat a lot of fish, or want to view other guidelines, you may want to visit KidSafe Seafood or Pocket Seafood Selector for their recommendations. The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating During Pregnancy suggests that
    "pregnant women should not cut fish out of their diets; doing so would leave out a prime source of nutrients that are important for a baby's development . . . in a perfect world, consuming fish every day would be ideal for boosting your omega-3 fats. As a compromise, I suggest eating a couple of servings of low-mercury fish per week and supplementing your diet with DHA or fish oil supplements or DHA-enriched eggs" (83).
    As for the tuna, the light canned tuna is frequently suggested as "safer" in books and websites on prenatal nutrition. However, as the dad I mentioned explained, independent testing has shown that some cans of light tuna are still dangerously high in mercury. Consumer Reports has a very helpful article explaining why they recommend no tuna at all for pregnant women, as well as what the dangers of mercury are for fetuses and young children.


    So, if certain fish can be dangerously high in mercury, are fish oil supplement safe, especially since supplements are not regulated by the FDA? According to The Harvard Medical Guide to Healthy Eating During Pregnancy, "there have been a few studies that suggest fish oil pills are generall safe. A Harvard group measured the mercury levels of five fish oil supplements and found that there were only negligible amounts of mercury in all of them, and the levels of organochlorines and PCBs were . . . below the detactable limit" (98). Other studies, by and Consumer Reports, found similar results.

    Interestingly, The Harvard Medical Guide also mentioned that fish oil can affect how well blood clots, so supplements should not be taken by people who have had a stroke, or who take anticoagulants, or who are preparing for surgery. Expectant mothers may also wish to stop taking them for this reason a couple of weeks before their due date. Since no other book mentions this, it may be a question to ask your care provider.

    At my house, we use the Nordic Naturals brand, available at many health food stores. The kids either use the Junior softgels or the strawberry-flavored liquid . Both taste good (I've even heard of adding the liquid to smoothies), and I use them both myself, sometimes. I like the fact that I can buy them locally, at a reasonable price; the kids like them; and most importantly, they're phamaceutical-grade and third-party tested.

    Omega-3 and Breastfeeding

    One of the nutrients naturally found in breastmilk which cannot be replicated is DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid. The benefits of the DHA found in breastmilk are far-reaching for breast-fed babies, affecting visual development, intelligence, and even behavior.

    According to Elizabeth Somer, in Nutrition for a Healthy Pregnancy, "Babies fed breast milk from others from mothers who regularly eat fish concentrate more of these fats in their never tissues and are more alert and process information more quickly than babies who don't get enough of these fats" (216). She goes on to write that
    "the last trimester of pregnancy and the first year of a baby's life are critical periods for visual and nerve development. These processes requre deposition of the omega-3 fats into cell membranes for normal cell structure and function. If these fats are in short supply, which is in the case when a baby is formula-fed or a nursing mother consumes little or none of these fats, nerve tissue development might be jeopardized even though the baby is growing at a normal rate . . . the omega-3 content of breast milk reflects the mother's diet" (216).
    As you may have noticed, the formula companies have gotten in on the whole omega-3 and omega-6 trend lately, by adding DHA and ARA into some of their formulas. It is very important to remember that DHA and ARA formulated in a laboratory and added to formula is not the same as the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids found naturally in breastmilk. In fact, I have read recently in Mothering magazine that these additions (made from algea) can cause serious digestive issues for some infants. You can read an executive summary about the marketing of DHA/ARA formula and its health impact or this short article for additional information.

    Well, I've learned a lot from writing this particular post: my husband, who is at risk for macular degeneration because of his genetics, is going to get his own bottle of Nordic Naturals omega-3's, and I think I'll be more regular in taking them too. My parents, with high choloseterol, will be referred to this post, I think. And I'll be sharing the Consumer Reports article with my future clients!

    Below are the books I used to write this post:
    The Pregnancy Book, by William Sears, MD and Martha Sears, RN
    The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating During Pregnancy, by W. Allan Walker, MD
    Nutrition for a Healthy Pregnancy, by Elizabeth Somer, MA, RD
    Having a Baby Naturally, by Peggy O'Mara

    Christina @ Birthing Your Baby
    Independent Childbirth Classes for Central Maine
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    Anonymous Michael Edson, MS, L.Ac. said...

    There are a number of research studies showing the tremendous value of supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids.

    Last month Archives of Ophthalmology published a meta analysis on omega-3 fatty acid and fish intake and its effect on the prevention of age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

    This study identified 274 abstracts, 3 prospective cohort, 3 case-control, and 3 cross-sectional studies.

    Using quantitative methods, a high dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids was associated with a 38% reduction in the risk of late AMD. Fish intake (2x per week) was associated with reduced risk of early and late AMD.

    More omega-3 and AMD specific studies need to be conducted to further investigate omega-3¹s effect on AMD.

    Ref: Arch Ophthalmol. 2008;126(6):826-833.

    For more related research, see the Research section at

    December 5, 2008 at 7:53 PM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Do keep in mind that omega-3 oils are very delicate. The high heat used to bake bread will de-nature the oil in the flax seeds, essentially undoing any of the benefits. Try sprinkling some ground seeds on oatmeal, or cold cereal instead.

    March 21, 2009 at 7:08 PM  

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