The skinny on fat, and why good fats are essentialOne of the most important facts you need to know is that the human brain is nearly 60 percent fat, - this helps understanding why some fats are so important and called essential fatty acids aka omega 3, 6 and 9.
What is fat and why is it important for mother and child?Fat is a rich source of energy and is made up of building blocks called fatty acids and these are classified as saturated, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated depending on their chemical structure. Some of these are an essential component of the diet but others can be detrimental to our health if too much is consumed. Of the 3 the ones you should be consuming less of are the saturated ones, found in full fat milk, cheese, fatty meets etc. The ones to increase consumption of are the mono and polyunsaturated ones. All these “good” fatty acids are also known as omega 3, 6 and 9.
We've learned in recent years that fatty acids are among the most crucial molecules that determine your brain's integrity and ability to perform. Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are required for maintenance of optimal health but they can’t be synthesized by the body and must be obtained from dietary sources. Clinical observation studies have related imbalance dietary intake of fatty acids to impaired brain performance and diseases.
The EFAs, particularly the omega-3 fatty acids, are important for brain development during both the foetal and postnatal period. Dietary decosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is needed for the optimum functional maturation of the retina and visual cortex, with visual acuity and mental development seemingly improved by extra DHA. Beyond their important role in building the brain structure, EFAs, as messengers, are involved in the synthesis and functions of brain neurotransmitters, and in the molecules of the immune system.
Why are these lipids so important pre and post pregnancy?As we have seen, DHA is required for neurological tissue – especially for the development and maintenance of the central nervous system and brain. It is also required for vascular tissue (blood vessels) and for the development of the eye in the foetus and infants and for visual function throughout life. Countless scientific studies have been done on the roles of DHA in babies, infants and children. Here are some interesting findings from just a few of them:
- Studies show us that children who were supplemented with DHA were less likely to experience colds and flu or the duration of incidences were shorter (meaning the children recovered faster).
- Children with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) are often shown to have much lower levels of Omega 3 fatty acids.
- A review published in Nature scientific journal reported two studies that showed neurodevelopment scores were better in babies whose mothers ate good levels of oily fish.
- Researchers found that infants born to mothers with higher blood levels of DHA at delivery had advanced levels of attention spans well into their second year of life. During the first six months of life, these infants were two months ahead of those babies whose mothers had lower DHA levels.
The last trimesterThe last trimester of pregnancy (week 28 onwards) is a particularly important time for the foetus’s brain – it grows by an astonishing 260% in this trimester. For this reason, it is particularly important for the mother to be taking in adequate DHA during this time. This also raises another issue: what if the baby is premature? The best thing a mother can do is to breastfeed her infant (if possible) and take in plenty of DHA herself so that the baby receives it through her milk.
The growing childAfter the baby is born, the brain continues to grow very quickly. In the first year of life, it grows by another 175%, and in the second year of life, by another 18%. After age 2, changes and growth occur throughout childhood but the total size of the brain only increases by another 21%. This shows that keeping up DHA intake is particularly important for the infant in the first two years of life.
There are countless studies to show that infant development is improved from intake of optimum levels of DHA. Therefore, new babies through infancy and into childhood should have access to DHA through food and potentially supplements, as a key component of developmental ‘brain’ nutrition.
Omega 3, 6 and 9 what are they and where can we find them?What are omega-3 fatty acids?
Omega 3s are polyunsaturated fats, a type of fat your body can’t make - that’s why they are referred to as “essential fats,” meaning that you have to get them from your diet. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends eating at least two portions of oily fish per week, which is rich in the omega-3s EPA and DHA.
They support infant brain development and are extremely important for brain development in babies.
Foods high in omega-3: oily fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines…) flaxseed (linseed)
What Are Omega-6 fatty acids?
Like omega-3 fatty acids, omega-6 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids, they are also essential, so you need to obtain them from your diet.
Although omega-6 fats are essential, the modern Western diet contains far more omega-6 fatty acids than necessary.
Foods high in Omega-6 : Nuts and seeds (Walnuts, Sunflower seeds, Almonds, Cashew nuts)
What Are Omega-9 Fatty Acids?
Omega-9 fatty acids aren’t strictly “essential,” meaning they can be produced by the body. In fact, omega-9 fats are the most abundant fats in most cells in the body. However, consuming foods rich in omega-9 fatty acids instead of other types of fat may have a number of beneficial health effects.
Foods high in Omega-9: Olive oil, Almond and Avocado oil.
Practical Dietary AdviceMy advice will be to always buy good quality cold pressed (organic whenever possible) oils; olive, walnut, avocado hemp and drizzle them every day on soups, salads, or use for crudité dipping. Do not cook with these as high temperatures tends to destroy all the goodness. Try to have a varied and mixed diet including loads of seeds, avocados, fish (fresh or in cans) oily ones are the best, mackerel, sardines, salmon, tuna.
As we further unlock the mystery of how fatty acids affect the brain and better understand the brain's critical dependence on specific EFAs, correct intake of the appropriate diet or supplements becomes one of the tasks we undertake in pursuit of optimal wellness.
Stay healthy, stay happy!
Zakia Mance, Naturopath and Hypnobirthing Practitioner