Pregnancy is said to be one of the greatest journeys that a woman may take. Nutrition is an important consideration in this period, for it will affect both mother and her child. The changes in a woman’s body and the development of her child should be supported by the nutrients from the food consumed. Apart from vitamins and minerals, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is one other nutrient that should be increased in pregnant women. DHA may be a form of fat, but it is the good fat that mommies should make sure they ingest a lot of.
Numerous benefits for moms and babies
DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid, which is significant in brain development and vision. About 97% of all omega-3 fatty acid in the brain and 93% of all omega-3 fatty acid in the retina in the eye are composed of DHA. Research shows that DHA from mothers supports their children’s eye-hand coordination, motor skills, and attention span, later in life. Optimal (or even advanced) development in these areas may spell a big difference for the intelligence quotient, socialization, and quality of life of the children of DHA-supplemented mothers.
Certain studies have also discovered that DHA-rich diets in pregnant women also render a longer gestation by a few days, and thus improving the quality of pregnancy. Conversely, this also means a reduction in the risk for premature delivery. Another benefit of DHA for moms is the protective effect of chronic conditions, namely: cardiovascular disease, arthritis, and some cancers.
A major depressive disorder is observed to affect 10% to 20% of women who have given birth. Furthermore, pregnancy-related and postpartum depression also influence child attachment, cognitive development, and behavior. Fortunately, efficient DHA supply in women also reduces the likelihood of them succumbing to depression.
Mothers who have allergies and asthma may also benefit from a DHA-rich diet that is anti-inflammatory in nature. Also, their offspring may have reduced risk for respiratory symptoms in the first two years of life. Fever, nasal discharge, rashes and other malaise are also said to be milder and shorter in duration in babies, who are given breast milk that is also rich in DHA.
Required for pregnant (even nursing) women
This fatty acid is essential because it cannot be synthesized by the body, and can only be obtained from the diet. Adults have a daily requirement of DHA, but research supports that pregnant (and even nursing) women need more DHA supply. Young babies are dependent on their mothers for their DHA and obtain this vital nutrient through the placenta and breast milk following birth.
The requirement for DHA in the diet of a pregnant woman is 300 mg. This may still be true after she gives birth, as rapid brain and retina development happens in the third trimester and up to the 18th month of life.
Food sources of DHA are as follows:
- Fatty fish – anchovies, halibut, salmon, herring, mackerel, tuna
- Meat liver
- Small amounts from poultry and egg yolks
Supplementation may be necessary
While oily fish is one of the richest natural dietary sources of DHA, women are warned that they should not eat more than two portions every week. This guideline is due to findings that some fish may contain heavy metals that are harmful to the body. Aside from limiting intake to no more than 12 ounces of cooked fish per week, choosing a variety of fish is also encouraged. According to Greenberg, et al, fish consumption is an excellent source of DHA, but may have mercury contamination and must be limited to 2, 6-ounce, low-mercury seafood servings a week. The seafood servings could be shrimp, salmon, pollock, catfish, scallops, and sardines. Pregnant and nursing women, and also those who desire to conceive, are suggested to avoid large fishes as well. The fishes on top of the food chain (like sharks, swordfish, king mackerel) may contain even more heavy metals.
Supplementation with fish oil or algae capsules may also be an option, to ensure the good quality of DHA supply in a woman’s diet or when not enough fatty fish is available.