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The widespread lack of omega-3 among pregnant women has serious consequences

The widespread lack of omega-3 among pregnant women has serious consequencesThe two omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, which are found in oily fish and fish oil supplements are of vital importance to the child’s health and cognitive skills. However, according to a large American population study, 25 percent of pregnant women say that they rarely or never eat fish during their pregnancy, and even fewer take fish oil supplements. Lack of omega-3 during pregnancy can have serious consequences for the development of the child. Also, it increases the risk of postpartum depression in the mother. The study authors therefore advise pregnant women to eat oily fish or take a high-quality fish oil supplement.

Oily fish contain the two omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, that are important for the development of the child’s brain, nervous system, and vision. Pregnant women should therefore make sure to consume enough omega-3. Scientists from Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute in the United States have looked closer at pregnant women’s omega-3 intake from oily fish or fish oil supplements. The study results come from several different population studies in the so-called ECHO (Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes) program that includes childbirths in the period 1999-2020 plus other data.
The new study encompasses 23 population studies where 10,800 pregnant women have reported their diet habits and fish consumption. The researchers also looked at 35 population studies where 12,646 pregnant women reported their intake of fish oil supplements.
According to the new study of pregnant women:

  • 25% never ate fish or ate fish less than once per month
  • 40% ate fish less than once weekly
  • 22% ate fish 1-2 times per week
  • 13% ate fish more than twice every week
  • 16% took a fish oil supplement

The study also revealed that among those who rarely or never ate fish, fewer took fish oil supplements, which gives an even greater overall risk of lacking omega-3 fatty acids.
Among pregnant women with high BMI that neither smoked nor used any kind of nicotine products, there were also fewer that took fish oil supplements. That also increased their risk of pregnancy-related complications.

The scientists recommend oily fish from the lower part of the food chain and/or supplements

According to the researchers, as an alternative to not eating any fish at all, pregnant women are better off eating oily fish from the lower part of the food chain, as the content of mercury and other environmental toxins is low. A good choice could be herring, wild salmon, mackerel, or anchovies from clean and pure waters. Pregnant women who don’t eat fish or eat too little to make a difference can opt for a high-quality fish oil supplement. According to the new study, it is important to get at least 500 mg of omega-3 fatty acids each day, of which 200 mg must be in the form of DHA that is vital for brain development. It appears that the need for omega-3 increases during pregnancy.
The study authors call for revised recommendations for pregnant women that tell how important it is to get enough omega-3 fatty acids, either by eating oily fish or by taking a supplement. The new study is published online by Cambridge University Press.

Omega-3 fatty acids and mood during pregnancy

The child’s brain grows and develops rapidly during the final stages of pregnancy, which means the mother is at increased risk of lacking the two important omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA. This may affect her central nervous system and increase the risk of exaggerated worrying and depression.
Research shows that women who are pregnant for the first time can lower their risk of mild pregnancy-related depression by taking one gram of fish oil daily for six weeks. The placebo-controlled study is published in International Journal of Community Based Nursing & Midwife.
The authors also mention other studies that show how fish oil supplementation is able to reduce the risk of depression in pregnant women, children, and adults in general. Beware that it takes around a month before fish oil supplements reach their optimal effect.


Emily Oken et al. Demographic and health characteristics associated with fish and n-3 fatty acid supplement intake during pregnancy: results from pregnancy cohorts in the ECHO programme. Published online by Cambridge University Press: 27 February 2024

Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute. Study results show 25 % of pregnant people are not getting enough omega-3 fatty acids from their diet or dietary supplements. ScienceDaily. 2024

Maasumeh Kaviani et al. The Effect of Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation on Maternal Depression during Pregnancy: A Double Blind Randomized Controlled Clinical Trial. International Journal of Community Based Nursing & Midwife. 2014

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