The Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats. If you're pregnant, they may take on a greater level of "essential-ness." Alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA, and linoleic acid can only be gotten from your diet but they may help make two other types of fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid, or EPA, and docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA. Many studies suggest these fats, particularly EPA and DHA, bring several benefits to both moms-to-be and the babies they carry.
Fish is the richest food source of DHA and EPA, but most Americans eat very little seafood. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend women who are pregnant or breastfeeding consume at least 8 and up to 12 ounces per week of a variety of DHA-rich seafood low in mercury. This amount is associated with improved infant health outcomes. Too much mercury in the body during pregnancy can harm a developing baby's brain and nervous system.
Benefits vs. Risk
Seafood is an excellent source of protein, provides several vitamins and minerals, and is low in saturated fat all of which are good attributes for a healthful food. Omega-3s ramp up the health aspects for pregnant women by potentially improving brain and vision development in the baby.
What's a Pregnant Woman to Do?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency released a chart, "Advice About Eating Fish," to help women and parents understand better seafood choices. The initiative recommends all women of childbearing age, especially those who are pregnant or breastfeeding, consume 2 to 3 servings of fish per week from the "best choices" list, which includes catfish, cod, salmon and sardines or 1 serving from the good choices list. Choices to avoid are highest in mercury levels and include shark and swordfish.
What about vegetarians? Because of DHA's beneficial effects on 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.