MS, RD, LDN, CBS
Janel holds a Master’s in Nutrition Communication from Tufts University. As the recipient of the 2010 Massachusetts Young Dietitian of the Year award, she believes in making healthy eating simple, sustainable, and delicious.
From pregnancy to childhood and beyond, consuming foods rich in healthy or “good” fats is critical for growth and development. Since not all fats are created equal, it is important to understand where to find the healthy ones and how to incorporate them into your diet.
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Known as “essential” fatty acids, omega-3s are important for supporting heart and brain health. There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids: ALA, EPA and DHA, the last of which is especially important in the development of the brain and nervous system. Because our bodies cannot make omega-3s, it is essential that we consume them through food sources (and that’s precisely why they’re referred to as essential fatty acids).
DHA and EPA come primarily from fish (or fish oil supplements), while ALA comes from soybean and canola oils, ground flaxseeds, walnuts and grass fed meat. While there are other benefits to eating ALA-rich foods, our bodiesconvert ALA into EPA and DHA at a very low rate. So unless you’re vegan or a vegetarian who doesn’t eat animal products, fatty cold-water fish are the best source of omega-3s.
During pregnancy, specific types of seafood should be avoided as they may contain high levels of methylmercury. This heavy metal can accumulate in your body over time, potentially damaging your baby’s developing brain and nervous system. These types of fish include shark, tuna, swordfish, king mackerel, marlin, tilefish and orange roughy.
Fish that are high in omega-3 and lower in mercury include wild salmon, sardines, mussels, rainbow trout and Atlantic mackerel.
Shrimp, tilapia, scallops, clams and catfish are also low-mercury options. These are high in quality protein, though lower in omega 3 fatty acids.
So how much should you be eating?
According to the newest Dietary Guidelines for Americans, pregnant women can consume 8-12 ounces of seafood weekly to contribute to their recommended intake of EPA and DHA. Demand for DHA increases during the 3rd trimester to support the rapidly developing fetal brain and nervous system.
Omega-3s are also associated with decreased risk of prematurity, as well as lower incidence of preeclampsia and gestational hypertension. Not only does the consumption of omega-3s have beneficial effects for you and your baby in utero, but it has also been shown that mothers who consumed seafood regularly during pregnancy gave birth to children who scored higher on verbal and visual acuity tests, and had greater social and communication skills at 8 years of age.
Expert organizations recommend that pregnant and lactating women get at least 1300 mg ALA and 200 mg of DHA a day so that your baby gets the necessary amount of omega-3 through breastmilk. Omega-3s are important for the continued development of your infant’s brain and retina of the eyes. If you are formula feeding, be sure to look for formulas that are enriched with DHA and ALA.
As your infant transitions into toddlerhood and begins to consume solid foods, meet omega-3 recommendations by introducing 2 ounce portions of seafood low in mercury 1 to 2 times per week. ALA-rich foods to include in their diet: ground flax, chia seeds, and plant oils such as canola, flax, and soybean.
Cow’s milk does not contain omega-3s, unlike mother’s milk or enriched formulas, and so essential fatty acids must start coming from whole food sources. Consuming omega-3s through the first few years of life is vitally important for continued cognitive and behavioral development.
Shop at the seafood counter weekly
Turn your fishmonger into your new best friend. Look for farmed lake trout or rainbow trout, wild salmon from Alaska (or even canned!), wild Atlantic mackerel, sardines, and Atlantic salmon, all of which contain high levels of omega-3s and low mercury.
Remember that fish freezes especially well, so be sure to take advantage of seafood specials and buy extra filets to freeze for another day (date and label your package; fattier fish can be frozen for up to 2 months, leaner fish for up to 6 months).
Or stock up in the canned foods aisle and grab some canned salmon, trout, or sardines.
Introduce “adult” food early on
You may not see your favorite baby food brand carrying pureed fish, but that shouldn’t stop you from introducing it to your infant. The first year of life is one of rapid growth – in physical stature as well as taste preferences – and introducing whole, nutritious foods at this period has been found to positively influence eating behaviors later in life. Fish such as salmon and even sardines are acceptable baby foods as they are good sources of omega-3s and are low in mercury.
While you may like your salmon seasoned and grilled, a simple mash of steamed, sautéed or even canned salmon is perfectly easy and nutritious to feed your infant. Consider smooshing in some avocado to make the consistency creamier and to up the good fats, or some pureed frozen peas, carrots, or sweet potato, each of which will add a little sweetness.
If your child turns their nose up at these fatty fish a few times, remember that it can take as many as 10 exposures to a new food before he eats it with gusto. Offering such nutritious “adult” foods at an early age is likely to influence his health later on.
Add in nuts, seeds or fortified foods to your family’s diet
Although fatty fish are arguably the most efficient way for you and your child to consume omega-3s, other food sources can help you meet the recommended amount.
Walnuts, ground flax seeds and chia seeds are all high in ALA (alpha-Linolenic acid), an omega-3 fatty acid, which can be converted to EPA and DHA in the body. These are all easy to add into salads, smoothies, cereals and yogurts. You can also bake them into bread. Be sure to introduce walnuts (and other nuts) only when your baby or toddler can tolerate the texture. Too early and nuts can be a choking hazard if not ground!
You can also look for foods that are fortified with omega-3s. Whether you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, or are not likely to meet your seafood goal, shopping for ALA or DHA enriched eggs, soy milk, juices, cooking oils and even snack foods can increase your omega-3 intake for the week.
Harris, Mary. “Implementation of evidence based recommendations for omega 3 docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in pregnancy.” Nashville, TN. Date accessed 5 Oct. 2015. Makrides, M and RA Gibson. “Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid requirements during pregnancy and lactation.” Am J Clin Nutr. Volume 71. Issue 1 (2000): pages 307S-11S. Hibbeln, JR, JM Davis, C Steer, P Emmett, I Rogers, C Williams, and J Golding. “Maternal seafood consumption in pregnancy and neurodevelopmental outcomes in childhood (ALSPAC study): an observational cohort study.” Lancet. Volume 369. Issue 9561 (2007): pages 578-85. Swanson, D, R Block, and SA Mousa. “Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA: health benefits throughout life.” Adv Nutr. Volume 3 Issue 1 (2012): pages 1-7. “Dietary Guidelines for Americans.” US Department of Agriculture, US Department of Health and Human Services. 2015–2020: Eighth Edition.