Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Health Benefits

A couple weeks ago I attended a conference that brought together Extension professionals with UNL research faculty. One of the breakout sessions that I attended, Omega-3 Fatty Acids for Brain and Health, was quite informative. Dr. Concetta DiRusso, professor in the Department of Biochemistry, introduced us to the different fatty acid classes, and their role in human health. As well as, other research being done in the FATTT LAB (Fatty Acid Transport, Trafficking and Transcriptional Regulation) at the University of Nebraska-Liincoln. She touched on several different aspects of Fatty Acids in all age ranges but the one that has resonated in me this past couple of weeks was the information that she shared about Omega-3 DHA in pregnancy and brain development of the fetus and baby.

What are Omega-3 Fatty Acids? Omega-3’s are essential nutrients that can not be made by human cells. So they must be taken in within your diet. This can be with either plant or fish oils. The most beneficial source is still being researched, because the two sources do not provide the same omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3’s found in plant oils, such as canola or flax seed, have 18 carbon chains with three double bonds. They are called ALA (alpha linolenic acid) or LN (linolenic acid). To see the most health benefits from Omega-3’s, the ALA must be converted to longer fatty acids that have more double bonds, including EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid)  and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).

What are the benefits of Omega-3 DHA? DHA is essential for brain, nerve and eye development. In fact, the brain is 60% lipid and 60% of that is DHA. So this DHA is very important for fetal and toddler brain development.

Pregnant women need to get plenty of DHA during the third trimester of pregnancy to have adequate levels of Omega-3 DHA in their diet to promote optimal brain and vision development for the fetus. Women who have made the decision to breastfeed should also get adequate amounts of DHA, as it is passed onto the baby through the breast milk. And this first year of exposure is very important to the brain and eye development of the baby.

How do you go about getting Omega-3 DHA into your diet? Seafood is the major source of DHA and EPA, the most important types of Omega-3’s for brain, nerve and eye development. So enjoy two servings of a variety of seafood/fish per week. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish (particularly fatty fish such as mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna and salmon). If you are concerned about mercury content you should avoid shark, sword fish, king mackerel and tilefish. It would also be a good idea to avoid eating raw seafood/fish, likes sushi, sashimi, seafood pate and smoked seafood. Make sure all seafood you consume is well cooked.  Many prenatal supplements contain DHA, as well.

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