Something Fishy: How to Get the Omega-3 You Need During Pregnancy

Fat’s developed quite a negative reputation recently, but not all fats are bad. Omega-3 fatty acids are “good fats” that are essential in protecting against immune and inflammatory diseases. Unfortunately, however, most Americans consume far more omega-6 fatty acids (“bad fats”) than they do omega-3 fatty acids. A person’s consumption ratio of omega-3 fatty acids to omega-6 fatty acids should be 21, but the typical American’s is actually closer to 120. This diet is of course unadvisable for most people, but it is particularly unhealthy for pregnant women and their unborn babies.

What’s so great about omega-3 fatty acids? Omega-3 fatty acids produce anti-inflammatory compounds, while omega-6 fatty acids produce pro-inflammatory compounds. If you consume an unbalanced proportion of omega-6 fatty acids, such as those found in corn, sunflower and soybean oil, your body will produce more pro-inflammatory compounds than you need, exacerbating the occurrence of diseases like asthma and eczema. Consuming foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids like fish oil, flax seeds, and walnuts will help your body combat these diseases. This is particularly important for pregnant women because it can not only decrease the chance of inflammatory diseases for the developing baby, but also dramatically reduce the risk of premature birth. Evidence also suggests that exposure to the right fats in the womb can promote immune system benefits well into adulthood. You’re basically establishing what is normal and what is not normal, long before your child enters the world.

Taking fish oil is probably the best way to get the ideal amount of omega-3 fatty acids during pregnancy. Especially if you have a family history of eczema or asthma, you should be taking fish oil every day during the last two to four weeks of pregnancy at least, and certainly while breastfeeding. You can get fish oil from a supplement or by eating fish. This advice may seem to conflict with recent warnings about seafood contaminated with mercury, a neurotoxin that is especially dangerous for pregnant women. You should still heed these warnings! Avoid swordfish, shark, tilefish, and king mackerel that contain higher levels of mercury. And steer clear of fish that may be contaminated with industrial pollutants like PCB (polychlorinated biphenyls), which have been linked to low birth-weight. In general, try to stick with younger fish, like Oregon tuna, which is less likely to have accumulated toxins. Check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website (http//www.cdc.gov/) for a more in-depth list of good fish and bad fish.

You can also visit my blog for more info on good fats, bad fats, and everything in between.

Mark Zakowski, M.D.
The Safe Baby System