With the new wave in infant formulas, most new and expectant mothers have heard of DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid) the omega-3 fatty acid that is touted as helping with brain development and visual acuity in the newborn. Some pregnant moms may have taken Expecta, the 200mg DHA supplement by Mead Johnson that is marketed as a supplement for both pregnant and breast-feeding moms.
Although it is an accepted fact in the medical community that omega-3 fatty acids are part of a balanced diet and that the average American does not get enough omega-3, this information has not made it into mainstream America. The National Institute of Health (NIH) has stated that individuals should consume more omega-3. With evidence that omega-3 is important not only for maintaining a healthy heart, but can also help with coronary artery disease and reducing triglycerides, the American Heart Association has published a set of omega-3 recommendations. In addition, there have been multiple studies showing an association between lower omega-3 intake and depression including postpartum depression, although additional studies are needed to confirm if there is a causal link between the two. Yet with all this information on the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, it seems that most mothers stop thinking about their or their children’s intake of these fatty acids once the change is made from formula or breast milk to whole milk at one year of age.
There are three main types of omega-3 fatty acids: DHA, EPA (elcosapentaenoic acid) and ALA, or sometimes abbreviated LNA, (alpha linolenic acid). DHA and EPA are primarily found in fish. ALA is found in some plants such as flaxseeds and walnuts. The body can convert ALA to DHA and EPA but not at a 1:1 ratio.
With new studies coming out regularly regarding omega-3 and the health benefits of including it in a well balanced diet, how to consume enough omega-3 becomes a legitimate question. Eating fish is the easiest and most direct way to get DHA and EPA. Due to the possibility of high mercury content in some fish the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have stated that women who might become pregnant, women who are pregnant or lactating and young children should limit their fish consumption to no more than 12 ounces a week. Yet, all fish are not created equal. When choosing those 12 ounces of fish, it would be best to choose those lowest in mercury and highest in omega-3. Shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish should be avoided altogether by women and young children. Salmon, herring and rainbow trout are all low in mercury and a 4-6oz serving of these fish would provide 1gram of EPA+DHA. A complete list of fish and their mercury content can be found at the FDA’s website, while a list of fish and their omega-3 content is available through the American Heart Association’s website.
There are also many food products that are now supplemented with omega-3, usually in the form of flaxseed or flaxseed oil. They include breakfast cereals, breads, and nutritional bars. In addition, omega-3 enriched eggs are also available. The chickens laying these eggs are fed flaxseeds as part of their diet and therefore their egg yolks have a better fatty acid composition that includes a higher omega-3 content.
While the absolute amount of omega-3 consumed is important, the ratio of its consumption in relation to omega-6 fatty acids may be even more important. Omega-6 fatty acids are generally considered pro-inflammatory while omega-3 fatty acids are considered anti-inflammatory. A proper balance between the two is needed in the body. According to the NIH, the typical American has a 10:1 ratio. What is interesting is that it is believed that primitive man had an omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio of 1:1. But one might ask, how did our ancestors have a 1:1 omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, they weren’t buying nutritional bars at Wholefoods? Well, as it turns out, cows are supposed to eat grass, not corn. Something most first-graders could probably tell you but something lost on the American ranching industry. Corn fattens a cow up quicker than allowing the cow to graze in an open pasture. But corn also alters the fatty acid content of the cow. Just as we are what we eat, cows are what they eat too. That really comes into play when we eat them, because now we are what they eat. Grass is naturally high in omega-3; but, while we can’t digest grass, cows on the other hand can. By eating a grass-fed diet, cows have a higher omega-3 content in their meat and milk. Therefore by consuming beef as well as milk, yogurt, cheese and butter from grass-fed cows, we can increase the omega-3 in our diet.
So the moral of the story is what is good for you as an infant is also good for you as child and an adult. The best way to increase omega-3 in your and your children’s diet is to continue to eat the 12 oz of fish allowed by the FDA per week and if you can find it, buy grass-fed food products. And, if you can’t find what you’re looking for at your local grocery store, ask them to start carrying it.