Omega 3: Vegan Pregnancy & Breastfeeding Series part 4
Updated: May 15, 2019
During the end of your pregnancy (third trimester) and the first 6 months of life, your baby undergoes rapid brain and eye development. Omega 3 is a fatty acid that is known to be responsible for binding to cell membranes in the brain, increasing fluidity and therefore improving the function of the cells. Omega 3 comes in 3 forms: Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). EPA and DHA are predominantly found in fish. As a vegan, your body converts the plant-based ALA into DHA.
Do vegans have enough Omega 3 in their diet?
Yes! It was historically thought that the human body is inconsistent in converting ALA to DHA. However, a cross-section study of over 14,000 people revealed that there were two groups of people who had the highest levels of DHA in their body: women and vegans (Welch et. al., 2010). Perhaps this is because Omega-3 containing plant foods are likely to feature daily in a vegan diet.
Getting the best out of an Omega 3 pregnancy diet
Hemp, flax and chia seeds have the highest quantities of ALA. It is also found in good quantities in linseed and walnuts. Linoleic Acid (LA) (aka Omega 6) fights against ALA, preventing it from converting to DHA. You could avoid high quantities of LA which is found in corn and sunflower oils; the Vegan Society recommend switching to rapeseed oil for cooking.
Do I need to supplement in my vegan pregnancy and whilst breastfeeding?
There is much hype about the 'importance' of taking omega 3 supplements in pregnancy, but are these necessary? Omega 3 supplements are often marketed as being essential for neural development of your baby, yet there have been no links made between long term outcomes for cognition, IQ, vision, other neurodevelopment and growth outcomes or language and behaviour (Middleton, 2018). Middleton's systematic review showed only some links between Omega 3 intake and 1) a lower chance of having a preterm birth and 2) the possibility of pregnancy continuing beyond 42 weeks.
An international study in 2007 showed a direct correlation between DHA in breastmilk and mum's omega 3 intake (Brenna, 2007). Another study showed that informing women about the importance of omega 3 is enough to increase DHA levels in breastmilk (Juber, 2016). So, now you are have read this you are likely to have a higher quantity in your breastmilk!
So the simple answer is no, it is not necessary to supplement your diet with omega 3 when you are pregnant or breastfeeding as there is insufficient - and inconsistent - evidence (Hale, 2018). However, it doesn't appear that Omega 3 supplementation during your vegan pregnancy will do any harm.
If Welch's study is anything to go by, you are vegan and a woman so you have a pretty good chance of having high DHA levels especially if you are mindful of your diet. A good dietary intake will make sure Omega 3 is present in your breastmilk too. Celebrate your vegan-womanly status.
Brenna, et al (2007) Docosahexaenoic and arachidonic acid concentrations in human breast milk worldwide. Available at: https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/85/6/1457/4754397#110964016
Hale, T (2018). Medications & Mother’s Milk.
The Vegan Society (2017) Omega 3 and Omega 6 fats. Available at: https://www.vegansociety.com/sites/default/files/Omega-3%20%26%20omega-6%20fats.pdf
Middleton, et. al. (2018). Omega‐3 fatty acid addition during pregnancy. Available at: https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD003402.pub3/full?highlightAbstract=3%7Comeg%7Comega%7Cpregnanc%7Cpregnancy
Welch et. al. (2010. Dietary intake and status of n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in a population of fish-eating and non-fish-eating meat-eaters, vegetarians, and vegans and the product-precursor ratio [corrected] of α-linolenic acid to long-chain n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids: results from the EPIC-Norfolk cohort. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20861171