DHA, EPA, ALA? The Essential Fatty Acids Explainer (& 4 Top Tips To Boost Intake!)

There are a lot of acronyms in pregnancy from Ob (obstetrician) to GD (gestational diabetes), you almost need a whole separate dictionary to keep track! But, this acronym, DHA, deserves attention and understanding to ensure you and your baby are getting this critical fatty acid each and every day for optimal health.

DHA stands for docosahexaenoic acid, it’s a mouthful which is why that acronym is pretty handy! DHA is on member of the long-chain polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acid family. There is also EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), which are also omega-3 fatty acids. DHA is well known for its anti-inflammatory benefits and also for supporting healthy blood flow, particularly to the brain.

DHA is also an essential fat, which means that your body cannot make it on its own, it needs to be acquired from our diet.

Where is DHA Found?

DHA, alongside EPA, is found most commonly in oily fish varieties such as salmon, ocean trout, mackerel, sardines and anchovies. These fish species are higher in fat compared to others in the ocean because of the colder water temperatures which they inhabit, meaning they carry more fat themselves which in turn is what we consume in the form of omega-3 fatty acids.

However, these fish get DHA in their diet from smaller fish varieties which have eaten DHA-rich algae! Algae are plants that live in our oceans and waterways which help provide food to the whole food chain of sea creatures, so the role of these green floating plants cannot be understated.

Why is DHA Vital For Pregnancy?

To give your baby the very best start, ensuring you are getting enough DHA is crucial to support baby’s brain, eye and nervous system development. DHA is one of the main components that helps build your rapidly growing baby’s brain.

New research (Kar et al., 2015) has also shown that DHA and omega-3 fatty acids during pregnancy can potentially reduce the risk of early and pre-term delivery. Whilst pre-term labour is certainly a complex area of obstetric medicine, ensuring adequate omega-3s is a relatively simple and safe strategy to consider as part of your pregnancy care to minimise this risk.

Additionally, research has also indicated that taking DHA in supplement form during pregnancy, particularly the second half of pregnancy can lead to a longer time of baby staying in and also protecting against low birth weight, by extension (Carlson et al., 2013).

Other studies have also shown the benefit of DHA on the mood of new mothers in the post-partum period, with research indicating that if your brain has less of these all-important omega-3s, this could be part of the complex contributors to post-partum depression and mood issues (Levant, 2010).

If you need help navigating perinatal anxiety or depression, please speak to your health care provider and reach out to the PANDA National Helpline 1300 726 306

So, it is certainly safe to say that DHA is very important to be getting enough of during pregnancy, and post-partum too!

How To Tell If You are DHA Deficient?

The American Pregnancy Association has stated that the target for DHA for pregnant women is 300 mg per day in supplemental form. The Australian guidelines including the Pregnancy Care Guidelines by RANZCOG are yet to catch-up to these recommendations, with the current daily target for pregnancy currently set at 115 mg per day.

With this in mind, getting enough omega-3s from diet alone can be challenging for many pregnant women. This is often due to a pregnancy-related aversion to the smell of fish thanks to its poignant aroma due to nausea, or simply because fish was never a food that regularly featured in your diet prior to pregnancy out of preference or following a vegan or vegetarian diet which excludes fish, particularly oily fish varieties.

Eating a 150 gram portion of well-cooked oily fish, like salmon, provides about 2100 mg of DHA (Sources from NIH) in just one serving, bumping that up to 2 servings per week can cover your requirements for the week.

However if that’s not practical for you or you would like the reassurance of making sure you’re getting enough DHA each and everyday than exploring your options for a prenatal supplement that contains adequate DHA would be your next step, in consultation with your health care provider. This is essential for those who follow a vegan or vegetarian or fish-avoiding diet.

This is because whilst there are lots of great plant-based foods rich in ALA omega-3s notably walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds and hemp seeds. ALA is known to be poorly converted into DHA by the body, at approximately rates of 10% or less! Meaning, it would simply be impractical to consume so many nuts and seeds to meet your DHA requirement without displacing room in your day for other essential foods and nutrients to support you during pregnancy.

If you are vegan or vegetarian, then looking for a prenatal supplement that uses DHA sourced from algae is your best option for maximum absorption and benefit. As flaxseed oil and similar plant-based omega-3 supplement alternatives, are unlikely to be utilised optimally by the body to support both you and your baby.

4 Top Tips To Boost Your DHA Intake When Pregnant

Looking to bump up your DHA Intake during pregnancy?

  1. If you eat fish, aim for well-cooked oily fish at least twice per week (150 gram portions each). You can also aim to incorporate plant-based sources of omega-3s to support your diet, as listed below.
  2. If you are vegetarian, look for omega-3 enriched eggs and aim to incorporate these into your diet most days of the week for a great source of protein with added omega-3 boost! Also, incorporate plant-based sources of omega-3s as listed below.
  3. If you are vegan, aim for omega-3 rich nuts and seeds such as flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts daily in moderate portions (30 grams per serve).
  4. All pregnant women should aim to select a prenatal supplement that contains at least 200 mg per serve of DHA, for vegans and vegetarians choose a supplement that is sourced from algae for maximum absorption.
  5. Finally, consider a scientifically formulated DHA supplement.

As always, please speak to your health care professional for individualised advice regarding your pregnancy care including commencing or changing your supplements.

If you need further individualised guidance about your pregnancy nutrition plan, speak to a prenatal dietitian.

Written by Stefanie Valakas APD – expert fertility & pregnancy dietitian & nutritionist and founder of The Dietologist.


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