What are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?

Omega-3 fatty acids chemicals that are essential for the development of important body functions. Most omega-3 acids are consumed in the diet but they can also be added to the diet with supplements. During pregnancy, getting enough omega-3 fatty acids is crucial because these fatty acids are critical building blocks of the fetal brain and the retina, a part of the eye. In addition to affecting the fetus, omega-3 fatty acids may also play a role in determining the length of gestation and in preventing perinatal depression

There are two fatty acids that are especially important:

  • DHA: Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and
  • EPA: Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) 

In general, omega-3 fatty acids are associated with several different body functions suchas dilatation of vessels, preventing blood clots, and reduction in inflammation. DHA is also a fatty acid that is mostly located in the brain, and it especially increases in the brain of the fetus very quickly in the third trimester of the pregnancy.

Maternal nutrition has a significant effect on the developing fetus and having the proper amount of omega-3 affects the amount of DHA deposited in the growing brain.

How can you get these fatty acids?

In general, these fatty acids are found in plants such as walnuts and in oils made from soy, canola, and flaxseed. In addition, both DHA and EPA are found in fatty fish (salmon, tuna, trout, sardines, and mackerel) and in smaller amounts in lean fish and shrimp. Your diet should therefore be geared towards getting these food within a balanced diet.

Many seafoods are rich in Omega-3, however about 10 years ago the FDA advised all pregnant women to limit seafood consumption to 340 g (2 6-oz servings) per week to limit fetal exposure to trace amounts of potential toxins such as mercury. Pregnant women should continue to eat 2 servings of fish and seafood a week during pregnancy, but they should avoid consumption of swordfish, king mackerel, shark, and tilefish.

Observational studies have found that omega-3 fatty acid consumption during pregnancy either in the diet or via supplements is associated with improved neurodevelopmental outcomes in the child, but there is not enough data to recommend omega-3 fatty acid supplementation for the sole purpose of prolonging gestation or reducing the risk of preterm birth. In addition, some data have shown that low seafood intake during pregnancy correlates with higher levels of depressive symptoms during pregnancy. while more thorough randomized, controlled trials have failed to demonstrate a clear benefit to omega-3 fatty acid supplementation during pregnancy and postpartum to prevent depressive symptoms.


Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for the developing fetus. All pregnant women should try and eat the right amount of food to obtain omega-3 in pregnancy. The right food includes 2 servings of low mercury seafood, plants, or supplements. As a good alternative, especially if you cannot consume the recommended amount of seafood, you can get the right amount of omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil supplements which are sometimes contained in prenatal vitamins or as separate supplements. Because omega-3 supplements are usually made from low mercury fish oil they are safe augment omega-3 fatty acids in the diet.

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