Essential fatty acids
During pregnancy it is vital to increase the intake of essential fatty acids for the proper development of the unborn child, its development after birth, as well as the physical and mental wellbeing of the mother. Omega-3 fatty acids, such as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), and in particular the long chain varieties, docosahexanoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), have been found to help building the brain, forming the retina, and developing the nervous system of the fetus. On the other hand, an adequate intake of DHA may help the mother to reduce the risk of developing preeclampsia, depression after child birth, and preterm contractions (1, 2).
Lactating women require increased amounts of essential fatty acids in the diet to compensate for the amounts present in breast milk. Various long-chain fatty acids are present in breast milk, including DHA, and the omega-6 fatty acids gamma linoleic acid (GLA) and arachidonic acid (AA). Research indicates that infants fed breast milk, rich in DHA, have better cognitive functions (organizing, planning, problem-solving, understanding and using language, accurately perceiving the environment) later in life than those who were fed standard formula (3, 4).
Normal growth and development in infants depends on an adequate supply of essential fatty acids especially DHA and AA. Low levels of DHA have been noted to occur in children with learning and behavioral problems, cognitive impairment, hyperactivity, attention deficit disorder (ADD), and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); however, results have been mixed, and more research is needed until clear recommendations can be made (5).
Low levels of GLA have been noted in infants with rheumatoid arthritis, cystic fibrosis, and eczema (6). The rising incidence of eczema in infants and children in recent years has been suggested to be due to the increased percentage of babies now being formula fed. In Europe, some infant formulas now contain GLA in the form of borage oil.
The differences in intake recommendations reflect different nutritional goals: while European health authorities’ recommendations for omega-3 PUFA, for example, are based on the amounts necessary to correct a clinically overt deficiency, the recommendations for total omega-3 PUFA formulated by WHO were based on considerations of cardiovascular health and neurodevelopment.