How to get DHA to newborns when mum is vegetarian or vegan

Jamie Rose Chambers, APD

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Published on

29 June 2017

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No matter what stage of life you are in, it is important to get essential nutrients needed to facilitate optimal health. A mother’s diet, from the blood supply in the placenta and from breast milk, delivers important DHA, a fatty acid to the foetus and newborn baby. The amount of DHA in the diet of a pregnant and breastfeeding mum determines the amount present in a baby’s braini, and research shows that women on vegetarian and vegan diets have the lowest blood levels of DHAii. Mothers who are deficient may have babies who are deficient too, so if mum is a vegetarian or vegan - or doesn’t eat fish - how will her baby get the DHA they need?

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is an essential fat found in algae and fatty fish. This good fatty acid accumulates in the brain and eyes. DHA is a form of of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid, and is unique as it is the most unsaturated of the fats and associated with development of neural synapses of the brain and the retina of the eye.iii 

DHA omega-3 is an essential nutrient to humans as our bodies cannot make it on their own and our ability to convert it from other nutrient sources is low, so we must to get it from our diet. Rich sources of DHA include fatty fish like salmon, tuna, trout, mackerel, herring, anchovies and algae. In the marine food chain, algae are the primary sources of omega-3 fatty acids for fish. In the wild, fish get their omega-3s from the algae in their diet. For farm-raised fatty fish the DHA concentration depends on what the fish have been fed, which is often a grain base, meaning farmed fish may not be as rich a source of omega-3 fatty acids as those caught in the wild. 

Some foods and beverages are fortified with DHA and some animals have their feed supplemented with DHA to enrich their meat, eggs or milk for human consumption. For vegetarians who eat fish, particularly when pregnant or breastfeeding, it is important to meet the recommendations of three to five oily fish meals per week. For vegetarians and vegans who do not eat fish, an algae-based DHA supplement is essential. 

Speak with an Accredited Practising Dietitian or health care practitioner for dietary advice on meeting your DHA requirements through pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Further references

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