The Value of Fats in your Pregnancy Diet
Fats are an essential part of a healthy diet, but some fats are better for you than others. A good goal to strive for (whether you are pregnant or not) is to make sure you get adequate amounts of the helpful fats, while trying to minimize the unhealthy types as much as you can.
Some fats are especially important during pregnancy because they support your baby’s brain and eye development, both before and after birth. Fats also help the placenta and other tissues grow, and studies show that some fats may help prevent preterm birth and low birth weight. Check out this article from the Mayo Clinic.
Which Fats to Eat During Pregnancy
There are four kinds of fat in food: monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, saturated and trans fat. Each type of fat is made up of a combination of fatty acids, so fats don’t typically fall into just one of these categories. Palm oil and lard, for example, are roughly half monounsaturated and half saturated fat, with a bit of polyunsaturated fat as well. But for the most part, you can follow these guidelines for which fats to try to avoid and which to eat in moderation.
Monounsaturated fats are found in olive, canola, and peanut oils, as well as in olives, avocados, nuts and nut butters. They’re considered healthy fats because they’re best at lowering bad cholesterol levels.
Polyunsaturated fats are beneficial too. They contain omega-3 fatty acids, like DHA and ALA (both of which are crucial for your baby’s healthy development), and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3s are found in some cold-water fish, flaxseed oil, walnuts, and canola oil, and omega-6s are found in sunflower, cottonseed, corn, and soybeans oils. (Soybean oils, found in many salad dressings and processed foods, also contains some omega-3s.)
Fish can be an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, and pregnant women are encouraged to eat 8-12 ounces of seafood per week. But some types of fish contain contaminants such as mercury. Choose seafood high in DHA and low in mercury, such as salmon, anchovies, sardines, and herring.
Many monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats contain vitamin E, an important antioxidant often missing in the typical American diet.
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) is a long chain omega-3 fatty acid and 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 breast milk.
- Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) is a long chain omega-3 fatty acid that 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) is an essential fatty acid and 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.
The Importance of DHA in the Diet
On average, the typical American diet contains less than 100mg of DHA per day, well below the amount recommended. 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. The recommendation of DHA for pregnant and lactating women is at least 200 mg/day.
Saturated fats fall into the category of unhealthy fats. Eat as little of these as possible, and try to limit them to less than 10 percent of your total calories. Saturated fats are found in high-fat meats, whole and 2 percent milk, tropical oils (such as palm kernel and coconut), butter, and lard. Saturated fats are usually solid at room temperature, unlike unsaturated fats.
Trans fats (also known as hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated fats) are to be avoided as much as possible. These fats, which also are typically solid at room temperature, are found in fried foods and some kinds of margarine. They’re also used in some packaged foods-like crackers, cookies, and chips-to extend the shelf life of these products. Read the nutrition facts label to find the amount of saturated and trans fat in a product, but keep in mind the trans fat is only listed if there’s more than 0.5 grams.
A diet high in saturated fat or trans fat can raise your bad cholesterol levels and may put you at risk for heart disease. Studies show that saturated and hydrogenated fats may also be linked to other health problems, such as cancer and diabetes.
Don’t beat yourself up if you indulge in some foods that contain some of the unhealthy fats on occasion. Just try to replace unhealthy fats with healthy fats as often as possible. The key is to be aware!
More on Omega 3’s on, Omega 3’s for my ADHD Kid.