Omega-3 Supplements

I have been reading about omega 3 (fish oils) and their benefits to the fetus' brain. I do not eat any fish on my own and would like to supplement my diet with omega 3 vitamins. However, I cannot find any information on how much to take, is it safe, etc. Do you have any info? (I am not pregnant yet, we're just getting started!)



Sue Gilbert

Sue Gilbert works as a consulting nutritionist. For many years she worked with Earth's Best Organic Baby Food, integrating nutrition and... Read more

Dear Nina,

Congratulations of being so conscience about your diet and health before you get pregnant. Prepregnancy nutrition and health can have a profound impact on a baby's health and development.

Before I answer your question I just want to clarify a couple of things to you and to anyone else who may be reading this. The fat you are referring to is called omega 3 fatty acid, or DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). This fat is not fish oil per se, but rather this fat is found in concentrated amounts in marine life and in some land plants, notably flax seed, rapeseed (used to make canola oil) and walnuts. Also, omega three is a fatty acid, not a vitamin. Therefore if your were to look for a supplement, you would not find it in the vitamin section.

DHA is critical to normal eye and vision development and along with another fatty acid, called linoleic acid, it makes up more than 1/3 of the fatty acids in the brain and the retina of the eye. In animal studies, babies born to mothers who had DHA deficient diets have behavioral problems and abnormal visual acuity, and their eyes do not respond properly to light. Most all of the accumulation of DHA and possibly other omega 3 fatty acids in the brains and eyes of human infants occurs during the last trimester. This is why premature infants are at a particular risk for potentially irreversible nerve and visual damage. Consuming these fats prior to and during pregnancy is imperative in order to assure your baby will reap their benefits.

In the United States, there are no RDA's for the intake of omega 3 fatty acids, although the matter is under close study. The American Dietetic Association does not recommend taking fish oil pills because they are not regulated so their quality cannot be guaranteed, and because of the potential for contamination. They do recommend two fish meals per week. Since you do not eat fish, this may be a dietary change you will want to make for the sake of your baby. If eating fish is just impossible, consider using flaxseed, walnuts, and canola oil in your diet. You should know, however, that the potency of omega 3 in these foods is only one fifth of that found in fish oils. If you do try to include fish there are a few facts you should know.

Some fish contain more omega 3s than others. These fish tend to be the deep, cold water variety. You must couple this recommendation with the cautionary notes that pregnant women be careful about the type of fish they choose to eat because of the risk of heavy metal and pesticide contamination that can accumulate in fish. Fetuses can be damaged by these toxic chemicals. The fish especially rich in omega three fatty acids include mackerel, salmon, trout, rockfish, herring, whitefish, anchovy, and tuna.

Pregnant women are warned against eating swordfish, shark or fresh tuna, and all fresh water fish. Fresh water is more apt to be contaminated than ocean waters. Of those fish that are okay to eat, eat a variety of them. This will reduce your risk of overdosing on one particular contaminant. Don't eat the fish skin, where toxic chemicals are stored. Choose farm raised fish if possible. While it is true that they contain less omega 3 than other fish, you are more certain they do not contain toxins. You can get farm raised cat fish and salmon at many fish markets. In sum, try to include 2 fish meals per week of ocean or farm raised, skinless fish, not including swordfish, shark or tuna. Fish will also provide you with a high quality source of protein, another important nutrient during pregnancy.

Thanks for writing.

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