DHA Facts

What Is DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid)?

Docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, is a polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acid (PUFA) found throughout the body. It is a major structural fat found in the brain and eye accounting for up to 97% of the total omega-3 fats in the brain and up to 93% of the omega-3 fats in a specific part of the eye, called the retina. It is also a key component of the heart. Numerous research studies confirm that everyone, from infants to adults to the elderly, can benefit from a regular intake of dietary DHA.

The Omega-3 Facts

There are Good Fats and Bad Fats

It is often said that Americans consume too much fat, but in the US and other parts of the world, many people don't eat enough good fat. While consuming a diet high in saturated and trans fats has been shown to raise LDL or "bad" cholesterol levels and increase the risk of coronary heart disease, foods high in PUFAs, specifically omega-3 fats, are important for good health. When attempting to avoid the “bad fats” it is important to not cut out the ”good” fats as well. So, how can you tell which fats are good and which fats are bad?

The Good Fats

  • There are two types of PUFAs, omega-6s, which are found primarily in vegetable oils such as safflower, sunflower, corn, flaxseed and canola oils, and omega-3s, specifically DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), two long-chain PUFAs found primarily in fatty fish, and short-chain ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) that comes primarily from plant-based sources like flax.

The Bad Fats

  • Saturated fatty acids are found mainly in animal sources such as meat and poultry, whole or reduced-fat milk and butter. These fats should be consumed in limited amounts.
  • Trans fatty acids are found in vegetable shortening, some margarines, snack foods, cookies and other foods that are made with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils. These fats should be avoided all together.

Both the American Heart Association and the USDA Dietary Guidelines have recognized the association between consuming both PUFAs, but especially omega-3 fats, to optimize heart health.

Understanding the Role that Each Omega-3 Plays

Today, more and more food products claim to be a good source of omega-3s, but not all omega-3s are created equal. There are three major omega-3 fatty acids each with distinct health benefits:

  • Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)

    DHA, a long chain omega-3 fatty acid, is the most abundant omega-3 in the brain and eye. It is also an important structural component of heart tissue and is naturally found in breastmilk.

  • Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA)

    EPA, a long chain omega-3 fatty acid, is important for human health. While EPA is not stored in significant levels in the brain and eye, it plays a very important role in the body, especially for heart health.

  • Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA)

    ALA, an essential fatty acid (EFA), is a shorter-chain omega-3 fatty acid that serves as a source of energy for the body. It can also convert to EPA and DHA, but in very limited amounts. ALA has been found to be beneficial for heart health.

DHA omega-3 foods and sources inlude

The Importance of DHA in the Diet

Americans Do Not Consume Enough DHA

On average, the typical American diet contains less than 100mg of DHA per day, well below the amount recommended by several expert organizations around the world. Fortunately, as research continues to demonstrate the importance of DHA, foods fortified with DHA are becoming increasingly available making it easier to include in your daily diet.

How much DHA do you consume? How much DHA should you consume? 

Several expert bodies around the world have made recommendations for DHA intake among various populations.

Pregnant and Nursing Women

  • 200mg/day of DHA for pregnant and lactating women was the recommendation by a workshop sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids (NIH/ISSFAL).
  • LEARN MORE About DHA for Pregnant and Nursing Women

Infants

  • A workshop sponsored by the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids (ISSFAL), a joint Expert Committee of the World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization (WHO/FAO) and the Child Health Foundation have all recommended the inclusion of DHA and ARA in infant nutrition products. Given the limited and highly variable formation from dietary precursors and because of their critical role in normal retinal and brain development, DHA and ARA should be considered conditionally essential during early development. “There can be little doubt about the essentiality of DHA and ARA for the brain” in early life1
  • LEARN MORE About DHA for Infants

Children and Adults

Dietary Sources of DHA

Dietary sources of DHA include:

  • Algae - Certain algae are natural sources of DHA and EPA. While most people believe that fish produce their own DHA and EPA, in fact, it’s the algae in their food chain that makes them a rich source of these omega-3s.
    • life'sDHA, produced from algae, is a natural vegetarian source of DHA. life'sDHA is available in dietary supplements, foods and beverages, and is added to the vast majority of infant nutrition products sold in the US.
    • life’s™OMEGA, produced from algae, is a vegetarian source of DHA and EPA. life’sOMEGA is available in dietary supplements, foods and beverages.
       
  • Fatty fish including anchovies, salmon, herring, mackerel, tuna and halibut.
  • Eggs naturally contain small amounts of DHA, but new DHA enriched eggs can contain up to 57mg of DHA per egg.
  • DHA fortified foods, beverages and supplements.

Does flaxseed oil contain DHA?

Flaxseed oil is a source of alpha-linolenic acid, ALA, a precursor of DHA. ALA is an important source of energy, however there are no known specific benefits of ALA on brain or eye development and function. While the human body can convert ALA to DHA and EPA, it occurs at a rate of less than 1%, so it is best to consume preformed DHA directly for the health benefits.

References:

FAO, 2010.

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