The Essential Guide to Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Updated: Jun 27
If you want to learn more about the importance of Omega 3 fatty acids during pregnancy, breastfeeding, infancy, and childhood, then look no further! This post will discuss the ins and outs of Omega 3 requirements during specific life stages and how to consume Omega-3s adequately and safely.
This post will explain the following:
Scroll To The End For a Summary
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
What are omega 3 fatty acids? To put it simply, they are the healthy fats! These fats help with brain, nerve and eye development, maintaining our cell membranes, and can even lower your risk for heart disease!
There are three main types of omega 3 fatty acids:
ALA - Alpha Linolenic Acid
DHA - Docosahexaenoic Acid
EPA - Eicosapentaenoic Acid
Our bodies are unable to make ALA so it is called an essential fatty acid that we must get through our diet. Our bodies can make DHA and EPA from ALA however, the process is inefficient so it is a good idea to try and get DHA and EPA directly from food and/or supplements. DHA and EPA are typically found in animal products such as fish, shellfish and fortified foods like eggs.
Some people choose to take fish oil supplements if they have trouble consuming fish. Caution should be taken by people who take hypoglycemic medications or anticoagulants like aspirin or warfarin when consuming omega 3 supplements as they can prolong bleeding time.
Omega 3 supplements made from marine algae instead of fish are a source of DHA and EPA that is suitable for vegetarians and vegans. ALA is the form that is found in most plant based foods like flax and chia seeds, plant based oils such as canola, tofu and some vegetables like brussel sprouts.
Click here for a Coconut Chia Mousse recipe high in Omega 3!
Omega 3 Fatty Acids During Pregnancy
The Adequate Intake (AI) for omega 3 fatty acids during pregnancy - 1.4g ALA/day
Omega 3 requirements are slightly higher during pregnancy when compared to the typical recommendation for women of 1.1g/day. Health Canada recommends that pregnant women as well as women of child bearing age consume 150g of fish per week.
This may not be as much fish as you think. 75g of fish would be roughly the size of the palm of your hand which you can consume twice a week to meet this recommendation.
It is important, especially during pregnancy, to choose fish with lower levels of mercury such as salmon, pollock, basa, tilapia, rainbow trout and shellfish such as shrimp, mussels and clams. Fish should be fully cooked as pregnant women are at greater risk for foodborne illness if they consume raw or partially cooked fish (i.e smoked). Getting omega 3 from non-fish food sources is safe during pregnancy. If consuming only plant-based sources it is important to ensure that the recommendations are being met.
Not only does omega 3 intake during pregnancy keep mom healthy it also provides key nutrients for baby’s growth and development. There have even been some studies that have shown an association with maternal DHA and EPA levels and enhanced neurodevelopment and cognitive function of infants and young children!
If you want to take omega 3 supplements it is a good idea to consult your healthcare provider. It is also a good idea to check for the Natural Product Number (NPN) found on the packaging of supplements. This number indicates that the supplement has been tested and is safe. One supplement to be careful with is cod liver oil. If this is taken along with a multivitamin supplement there is a risk of consuming unsafe amounts of vitamin A.
To see Health Canada's guidelines on safe prenatal fish consumption, click here
Omega 3 Fatty Acids While Breastfeeding
The AI for omega 3 fatty acids while breastfeeding - 1.3g ALA/day
Omega 3 fatty acids are transferred from mom to baby through breastmilk. Like during pregnancy, it is recommended that breastfeeding women consume 150g of low mercury fish per week. This would provide around 200mg of DHA per day. DHA is crucial for brain and eye development in infants. If mom increases intake of DHA more DHA will be found in breast milk resulting in more DHA for the baby. Some studies have associated intake of DHA through breast milk with enhanced cognitive ability, psychomotor development, visual acuity and language development.
For more information on nutrition guidelines for breastfeeding moms, click here
Omega 3 Fatty Acids for Infants and Children
The AI for omega 3 fatty acids by Life Stage:
0-12months - 0.5g ALA/day
1-3 years - 0.7g ALA/day
4-8 years - 0.9g ALA/day
The research on DHA fortification of infant formula shows mixed results. Some studies find no benefits for these formulas while some indicate an association between fortified formulas and improved visual acuity, and cognitive and behavioural function. Since there are some potential benefits to these fortified formulas and the low risk, DHA fortified formula may be used during the first year of life in infants who are not breastfed. This may be a better alternative to DHA supplement drops as there is limited evidence on their effectiveness and further research is needed.
Babies over 6 months, toddlers and children should be offered omega 3 containing foods everyday. Along with serving fish, adding ground flax, chia or hemp seeds to meals or snacks can be a great way to consume omega 3 fatty acids.
In short, Omega 3 Fatty Acids are:
Safe prenatal fish consumption is essential for the health of mom and baby. It is important that pregnant women are consuming adequate amounts of Omega 3 while avoiding high-predator fish and choosing fish options lower in mercury content.
Due to the fact that Omega 3 is transferred to baby from breastmilk, breastfeeding moms should consume the recommended amounts of DHA to ensure cognitive growth and development is enhanced in their baby.
The research on DHA-fortified formula and DHA supplement drops are inconclusive. For infants who are not breastfed, formulas fortified with DHA may be used as they show some benefits and are low risk to baby. Infants over 6 months of age and children should be consuming foods containing Omega 3 on a daily basis for healthy growth and development.
Omega 3 fatty acids are important nutrients that provide numerous health benefits. This nutrient is especially important during pregnancy, breastfeeding, infancy and childhood as Omega 3 provides valuable cognitive benefits to children at early stages of life. Adequate consumption of this nutrient promotes cell membrane function and nervous system development.
If you're looking for quick and easy recipes high in omega 3 for the whole family, CLICK on the videos below ⬇
Special thanks to Sabrina Mastrangelo and Bavina Sivayogeswaran, nutrition graduates from Ryerson University who conducted the research and helped with content development for this post.