“Omega-3 Fatty Acids” is a broad name for several fats that are considered good and beneficial for health. The term omega-3 is simply related to their chemical composition. The body’s most favorite omega-3 is DHA, and it is abundant in the brain and the retina of the eye. It works to promote normal mental function, memory, and visual acuteness.
- DHA and other omega-3’s
DHA can be obtained from fatty fish such as salmon, herring, tuna, mackerel, halibut, sardines, and anchovies. ALA is another omega-3 that is found in plants such as walnuts, flax seeds, and canola. Although our bodies can make DHA from ALA, this process is not very efficient, in both adults and infants, and varies among individuals. For that reason, it is recommended that DHA be part of the diet. EPA is another omega-3 found in fish sources, which, in combination with DHA, helps to ensure normal neural and cognitive function.
- For the pregnant and nursing mom
During the third trimester, DHA builds up at a high rate in the neurological tissue of the fetus, mainly the brain and the retina of the eye. It comes from the mom’s blood through the placenta. Studies found that women who have higher DHA in their blood when they were pregnant give birth to babies with higher DHA in their blood as well. Because of its role for fetus brain and sight development, pregnant women need a diet rich in DHA. The American Dietetic Association recommends 8 ounces of fatty fish a week.
Women need to know that the benefit of DHA extends beyond their babies. One study reported that the level of DHA in pregnant women drops significantly during the third trimester—the same time it builds up in fetus brain and retina. When they re-measured DHA six weeks after delivery, the stores were still low. The deficiency was even more notable in breast-feeding moms. This means any woman who ever had a baby in her life has less DHA in her blood. Not good news.
- For the full term and preterm baby
DHA is necessary for full and preterm babies because it continues to play a role in cognitive function after birth. Research in this direction started when studies found that breast-fed babies perform better on cognitive tests than formula-fed babies—that is prior to DHA-enriched formulas. What they also observed is that compared to formula-fed babies, the blood of breast-fed babies contained more DHA. Although these findings were preliminary and the effect could not be directly attributed to DHA, they were the beginning of a plethora of research in this field.
Studies found that indeed, DHA is important for brain and vision development. Thirty percent of the human brain is made of fat; of which almost half is DHA. Less than optimal DHA in your baby’s diet can have long-term effects that could interfere with neurological development, learning behavior, habituation, exploring new environments, and learning through smell sensation. When babies were fed DHA-rich diets, either fortified formulas or breast milk, they performed better on visually based tasks. They also showed better brightness discrimination and visual potential.
Because pre-term babies missed on the opportunity to accumulate DHA in the uterus, the effect of a DHA-rich diet is more pronounced when compared to full term babies.
- DHA content of breast milk is variable and depends on the nursing mom’s diet
Breast milk contains 150 different fatty acids whose proportions mirror the amount and type of fat in the diet. In other words, when the mom takes in adequate DHA, there is more of it in her breast milk and thus in her baby’s blood. This, in return, leads to better language and vocabulary comprehension, according to several studies.
Even more, the amount of DHA in breast milk varies among women of different cultures. Compared to Japanese and Chinese women, whose diets usually consist of plenty of seafood, Western women were found to have less DHA in their breast milk. Since fish is not a staple in the American diet, a little effort—and creativity—is necessary to embrace it in the dinner menu.
- Fish oil supplements
Fish oil supplements are an alternative when eating 8-12 ounces of fish a week becomes challenging. For women who eat little fish, taking a daily a supplement that contains 200 mg DHA is recommended. In fact, it does not make any difference if DHA comes from algae, fish oils, or fortified foods. Up to 1 g (1,000 mg) DHA a day and 3 g (3,000 mg) DHA and EPA a day is considered safe.
- Infant formulas with DHA and ARA
In 2002, Mead Johnson released Enfamil Lipil, the first infant formula on the market with added DHA and ARA.Today, many products followed their footsteps and released supplemented products as well. The source of DHA and ARA are algae and fungi, which are approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
ARA is a fatty acid, not an omega-3, that is also necessary for brain development. Our bodies can make ARA from other fatty acids. However, when infants were given formulas fortified with DHA alone, negative effects on language and growth started to appear. Because too much DHA can compete with ARA and lessen its availability in the body, infant formulas must provide a balance of the two fatty acids.
- Breast feeding vs. formula feeding
The widespread use of fortified infant formulas does not change the fact that breastfeeding remains the recommended method for optimum nutrition. After all, Similac Advance is marketed as containing “DHA and ARA, special nutrients found in breast milk” and Enfamil Lipil as the “closest formula to breast milk.”
Whether you are nursing or not, make sure you are getting enough of these super fatty acids. Two meals of fatty fish a week will do it. As for your baby, if you are taking care of your needs, your body is taking care of his. And if you are using infant formula, choose one that is fortified with ARA and DHA to build the solid nutrition foundation your baby needs to grow and learn.