Omega 3 fatty acids – what’s all the fuss about ? (part 2) - Docosahexaenoic acid

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Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)

Why you need DHA

DHA is vital for the development of your baby’s brain, nervous system and the retina of the eye. Experts believe it’s also required for other tissues, such as the heart. During pregnancy a baby accumulates roughly 10g of DHA, 6–7g of which is for brain development during the last trimester. A woman’s DHA levels increase by about 50% during the first part of pregnancy in preparation for meeting her baby’s needs later on.

The official advice

Pregnant and breastfeeding women require at least 200mg of DHA per day, according to a group of over 30 experts set up by the European Commission. The European Food Standards Agency (EFSA) advises that all adults consume a combined total of 250mg of DHA and EPA for their cardiovascular health. In addition to this, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should have an extra 100 to 200mg of DHA per day. Following this advice would mean your intake would be equivalent to eating one or two portions of oily fish a week, which is what the UK government recommends for pregnant women in general.

DHA in the diet

Many vegetarians consume no DHA at all, since it is found primarily in oily fish. Lacto-ovo-vegetarians can get small amounts of DHA by eating eggs or higher intakes if they eat eggs from chickens fed an omega 3-rich diet, such as Goldenlay (which have 150mg of LCPUFAs per egg). DHA is also found in some algae, and in the US more than 100 food products are now fortified with DHA from algal oil. This is starting to happen in the UK too, but at the moment the only widely available products containing algal oil are Quorn fishless fingers, which contain 29mg of LCPUFAs per finger. We are likely to see more foods fortified in this way in the future, but at the moment lacto-ovo-vegetarians in the UK are unlikely to meet recommendations from diet alone. For vegans it is even more difficult, as although some seaweeds contain very small amounts, getting it this way requires considerable expertise. Therefore taking supplements with DHA derived from algae is a good option.

Conversion

Your body can make DHA (a long-chain omega 3) from ALA (a short-chain omega 3). But this is not generally very effective and conversion rates vary among individuals. There is some speculation that the body becomes more efficient at turning ALA into DHA during pregnancy, but this has not been proved. When pregnant Dutch women were given ALA supplements, their blood DHA levels weren’t found to increase and nor were their babies’ levels. Another study, carried out in America, found that even when breastfeeding women took high doses of flaxseed oil (20g per day) it made no difference to the DHA levels in their milk. Experts generally believe you are unlikely to get enough long-chain omega 3s just by eating ALA-rich foods or taking supplements containing ALA.

Part of the problem is that high intakes of omega 6 fatty acids, which are found in sunflower oil, disrupt the conversion of ALA to DHA. This is a particular issue for vegetarians, who tend to have a high ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids in their diets. However, this ratio can be lowered by replacing sunflower oil or corn oil with rapeseed oil or olive oil, and eating more ALA-rich foods, such as walnuts and flaxseeds . Conversion of ALA to DHA is also more efficient if individuals are getting enough micro-nutrients, including iron, calcium, zinc and vitamin B12.

Rapeseed oil

Rapeseed (canola) oil is a good general oil for cooking. As well as being lower in omega 6 fatty acids, it contains less saturated fat (7%) than butter (52%) or even olive oil (14%). It is also more stable than olive oil when heated, and it can be used in baking without affecting the flavour of cakes or other foods. Cold-pressed rapeseed oil is thought to be particularly beneficial.

 
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