You may know that DHA—commonly referred to as fish-oil—is a recommended supplement for a healthy heart and pregnancy, but did you know there are vegan options on the market? OBGYN Dr. Gleaton explains what vegan DHA sources look like, if they’re effective, and why DHA is so important. 

 

By Dr. Kenosha Gleaton

Nutrition and pregnancy are already hard to navigate, but dietary restrictions can put even more pressure on expecting (or trying) moms. There are some vital nutrients that a good prenatal vitamin should include, but there aren’t always plant-based options available. We’re here to help explain what DHA is and how you can consume appropriate levels of DHA while avoiding fish oil supplements. 

Why is DHA important for pregnancy?

DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid, is an essential omega-3 fatty acid that’s vital for the growth and development of the infant brain as well as the everyday functioning of the adult brain. DHA is also a key component of the eyes and heart. ACOG recommends pregnant women take in about 200-300 mg of DHA daily for improved pregnancy outcomes. Natalist’s Omega DHA contains 450mg of DHA and 150mg of EPA, supporting a healthy pregnancy and encouraging early milestones.

Typically, DHA is found in food sources such as cold-water fish and seafood and through other animal products like eggs, chicken, and livestock fed high sources of DHA.

Vegan DHA sources

If you’re on a vegan diet, it can be more challenging to ensure you’re receiving an adequate amount of nutrients, especially if you’re TTC or are expecting. Fortunately, there are some options available to guarantee healthy development for yourself and your baby.

In order for the human body to obtain and use DHA or EPA on a vegetarian/vegan diet, it must consume foods that contain ALA, or alpha-linolenic acid. ALA is found in seeds and nuts such as flax seed, walnut, echium, chia seeds, and more. Unfortunately, many studies have shown that the conversion to DHA from seeds and nuts is minimal or nonexistent

Fortunately, there are supplemental options on the market, like micro-algae oil, which can increase DHA levels in blood plasma. There are also vegan prenatals and omega-3 supplements on the market. When comparing options, make sure you’re getting the appropriate 450mg of DHA for healthy development

Are vegan DHA supplements as good as fish oil DHA?

Research shows similar effects on the body regarding vegan DHA intake and animal-based DHA intake. Fish consume their DHA from algae, so vegan supplements using algae and algae oil are getting DHA straight from the source. More research needs to be done on long-term effects of vegan DHA supplements, but studies have suggested comparable health benefits to fish oil DHA.  

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Benefits of vegan DHA

Vegan DHA is a way to consume necessary nutrients while avoiding eating seafood or fish oil. The health benefits of vegan DHA and animal-based DHA are comparable, and there are environmental benefits to taking on a vegan diet.

Overfishing (the catching of fish at a higher rate than they’re able to reproduce) is a severe problem that impacts food insecurity, hurts the ocean food chain, and contributes to coral reef degradation and climate change. When choosing vegan DHA tablets, you’re also supporting more sustainably-sourced nutritional supplements.

Vegan DHA is also void of the risk of some environmental contaminants found in fish, such as mercury, dioxins, PCBs, and more. Fortunately for those that do choose to use fish oil DHA, there are some purified options available that are free of toxins. 

Vegan DHA and pregnancy

More research needs to be done to accurately demonstrate the health benefits of vegan DHA in pregnancy, but studies do show that algae-derived DHA is an excellent source of omega-3s and can be a good option for pregnant women worried about environmental toxins in fish. 

Algae-derived DHA is likely missing other vital nutrients needed for a healthy pregnancy, such as EPA and vitamin A. A high-quality, evidence-based prenatal multivitamin is always recommended to supplement a healthy diet and ensure appropriate intake of necessary nutrients. 

To sum it all up

DHA makes up >90% of omega-3 acids essential for brain and eye development and is necessary for a healthy pregnancy. While DHA is typically found in a diet consisting of seafood or through fish oil supplements, there are vegan alternatives. Algae-derived DHA is a plant-based option that can meet ACOG guidelines, eliminates the risk of possible environmental toxins, and doesn’t support overfishing which can be damaging to the planet. As with most diets and nutritional supplements, it’s important to find a multivitamin that is doctor approved, researched, and GMP certified.