Safe Sources of Omega-3 Fats for Pregnant Women

By Susan Moores, MS, RD
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March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.

Omega-3 fats are essential fats, meaning you can only get them from your diet. If you're pregnant, they may take on a greater level of "essential-ness." Many studies suggest these fats, particularly eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), bring several benefits to both moms-to-be and the babies they carry.

Fish is the richest source of DHA and EPA, but most Americans eat very little fish. In fact, recent surveys show the average person consumes about three ounces of fish a week — pregnant women eating barely two ounces.

Several groups, including the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, recommend women who are pregnant eat 8 to 12 ounces of fish and seafood a week to help get an adequate amount of EPA and DHA for their babies. Yet, often women shy away from doing so because of concerns about contaminants in fish, such as mercury. Too much mercury in the body during pregnancy can harm a developing baby's brain and nervous system.

Benefits vs. Risk

Fish is an excellent source of protein, provides several vitamins and minerals, and is low in saturated fat — all of which are good attributes for being healthy. Omega-3s ramp up the health aspects for pregnant women by potentially reducing the risk of premature delivery and improving brain and vision development in the baby.

What's a Pregnant Woman to Do?

Bridget Swinney, MS, RD, author of Eating Expectantly: Practical Advice for Healthy Eating Before, During and After Pregnancy, says to eat fish. "There is so much misinformation about eating fish during pregnancy. There are plenty of low-mercury, low-contaminant fish to choose from and the consensus from scientists is that the benefits of eating 12 ounces a week of low contaminant fish outweigh risks." Swinney encourages women to use the growing number of resources available to help feel more comfortable doing so. "Whether it's at your grocery store, at a restaurant or through your own community's health department, you can learn where your fish comes from, how it's raised and how it's harvested, which will make you more confident in your choices." Knowledge is power, adds Swinney. "The more you know, the better you and your baby will eat."

What about vegetarians? Because of DHA's beneficial effects on reducing the risk of premature delivery and improving infant brain and vision development, pregnant vegetarians should choose DHA-fortified foods or eggs from hens fed DHA-rich microalgae or use a microalgae-derived DHA supplement. For more information about appropriate supplement use, consult your doctor.

Fish Rich in Omega-3s and Considered Lower Risk for Contaminants

(Includes DHA and EPA levels for 3½ ounces of fish)

  • Anchovies (2,000 mg)
  • Bass
    • Striped (950 mg)
    • Freshwater (700 mg)
  • Halibut (cooked)
    • Atlantic (400 mg)
  • Herring (2,000 mg)
  • Mussels (blue) (800 mg)
  • Oysters (Pacific) (1,400 mg)
  • Salmon (800-1,700 mg)
  • Trout (900-1,100 mg)
  • Tuna (up to 6 oz./week)
    • Bluefin (1,500 mg)
    • Canned (1,000 mg)
    • Canned, light (270 mg)
    • Albacore
      • Yellowfin (300 mg)
  • Whitefish (1,600 mg)

*King mackerel, shark, swordfish and tilefish are rich in omega-3s, but contain higher levels of mercury and should be avoided.

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