Essential Prenatal and Postpartum Nutrient: DHA

Lindsay Watkins, RD, IBCLC

Many pregnant women avoid eating fish during pregnancy due to increased awareness around high levels of mercury and a general questions about the safety of eating fish. However, only certain fish contain high levels of mercury including king mackerel, tilefish, swordfish, and shark. All of these fish should be avoided. In addition, tuna should be limited to 6 oz. per week.

Lower mercury fish like salmon, sardines, and herring are safe to eat during pregnancy. These fish are good sources of the brain-boosting omega-3 fat, DHA. While these fish contain small amounts of mercury, they also contain selenium, which may mitigate the effects of the mercury.

A highly regarded study on fish intake in pregnant women, showed that eating over 12 ounces of fish a week was strongly linked to higher childhood IQ and communication skills. The worst cognitive outcomes were linked to mothers who consumed no seafood during pregnancy. In addition to high amounts of DHA, fish also contains iodine, zinc, and selenium, which play an important role during pregnancy.

DHA isn’t just important during pregnancy it’s also important during the post-partum period. If you’re breastfeeding, consuming an adequate amount of DHA will help to ensure your baby has what it needs for healthy brain development.  DHA has benefits for mom as well. Some research studies show that women who take a DHA supplement have lower rates of post-partum depression than those who don’t.

It is entirely possible to get an adequate amount of DHA from food if you eat fatty cold-water fish 2-3 times per week. Examples include salmon, herring, sardines, trout, fish eggs, or mussels. Much smaller amounts of DHA are found in pasture raised eggs, grass fed, pasture raised animals and dairy products from grass-fed animals. At a minimum, aim to consume 200 mg of DHA daily. There are studies demonstrating up to 2,200 mg DHA is safe and beneficial. For perspective, 3 oz. of salmon contains about 1400 mg of DHA, 3 oz. of grass-fed beef contains about 100 mg and a pasture raised egg contains about 100 mg.  

If you dislike these foods or do not consume them regularly, consider a high-quality DHA supplement. You’ll want to make sure that your supplement contains EPA – another type of omega-3 fat. This fat helps with transferring the DHA across the placenta.

Tips for Increasing DHA intake:

• Eggs are a great food to include during pregnancy each day! Pasture raised eggs are harder to find and often more expensive, but are higher in many nutrients, including DHA.

• Canned salmon is a great way to get DHA. It’s cheaper than fresh, low in mercury and most people find it less fishy than sardines. Prepare it however you like to make your tuna salad to put in a sandwich or on salad. I like mine with mayonnaise, red onion, dill, capers, and a squeeze of lemon juice.

• Salmon is also a great grilling food! This Grilled Salmon with Avocado Salsa is a go-to in the summer for my family.