Registered dietician Amy Shapiro explains what omega-3 fatty acids are, the different types available, why they are important during pregnancy, and ways to consume them.



By Amy Shapiro, MS, RD founder of Real Nutrition

As a registered dietitian, I get questions about omega-3s all the time. Many know they are important, but it can be hard to comprehend the different types, what their benefits are, and how to best consume them. During pregnancy, it is especially important to get the recommended amount of omega-3 fatty acids, so I’ll break down everything you need to understand.

What are omega-3 fatty acids, and why are they important?  

Omega-3 fatty acids are a variety of fats that are essential to our diet. Our body cannot produce them on their own, so we must consume them. They help prevent depression, ADHD, help with formation of certain organs, and decrease inflammation in the body. They play an important role in our bodies and provide a variety of health benefits.

What are the different types of omega-3 fatty acids?  

  1. ALA, alpha-linolenic: used by the body mainly for energy, but can be converted although inefficiently to EPA and DHA. Found in flax, chia, etc. 
  2. EPA, eicosapentaenoic acid: mostly found in animal products such as fatty fish and can be converted into DHA. Supports heart, immunity, and inflammatory response.
  3. DHA, docosahexaenoic acid: the most important of the omega-3s because it is a key component in body parts including your brain, retina, etc. DHA is mostly found in animal products like fish, eggs, and grass-fed beef.

Why is DHA the most critical fatty acid during pregnancy?

Because this is a component of the brain, it assists in neurological and retina development and possibly intelligence of the baby.  

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How do omega-3 fatty acids support a healthy pregnancy?  

They provide energy, support development, decrease inflammation, promote heart health, and support immunity. Omega-3 fatty acids also may help to prevent preterm labor/delivery, lower the chances of preeclampsia, and may increase birth weight.  Additionally, they may help to prevent depression in the mother by possibly warding off postpartum depression.

How do omega-3 fatty acids encourage early developmental milestones?

Because they play an important role in brain development, omega-3s may assist in preventing any cognitive and/or visual impairments.

How much DHA should women take during pregnancy and when breastfeeding?  

During pregnancy, women should supplement their diet with 300 mg per day

While nursing, mothers should supplement their diet with 300 mg per day.

What foods are rich in omega-3 fatty acids? 

Some of my favorites include flax, chia, hemp, grass-fed beef, whole eggs, and cold water fish such as salmon, fish oil, sardines.

Are there vegetarian vs. non-vegetarian options for consuming omega-3 fatty acids?

Yes! Flax, chia, hemp, and walnuts are all great sources, however, they mostly contain ALA, which can be converted into DHA and EPA, but not at very efficient rates. Some algae and Algal oils are great vegan sources of DHA and EPA, too. To sum it up, algae and fish oil are equally rich in DHA, and both are better options than plant sources like chia and flax. 

Support a healthy pregnancy with omega-3s

As you can see, omega-3 fatty acids help to support a healthy pregnancy in many ways. DHA intake during pregnancy is critical, but keep in mind that benefits may be gleaned from the preconception period all the way through breastfeeding. Remember, you don’t need to mega dose, but try to incorporate Omega 3 rich foods daily to ensure you are covering your bases. Learn more about Omega DHA here.