One of the most important facts you need to know is that the human brain is nearly 60 percent fat - this helps to understand why some fats are so important and called essential fatty acids - aka omega 3, 6 and 9. The other crucial fact (and relates to your little ones) is that brain growth is more or less completed by 5-6 years old so an intake of good quality lipids (fats) pre-and post-birth is essential to keep the brains of our little cherubs healthy.
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 these, the ones you should be consuming less of are the saturated ones, found in full fat milk, cheese, fatty meets etc.…Too much saturated fat can increase the amount of cholesterol in our blood, which increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. The ones to increase consumptions 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 for baby and mother?
As we have seen, DHA is required for neurological tissue – especially for the development and maintenance of the central nervous system and brain, including the growth of nerve cells and the myelin sheath that insulates the nerves. 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.
The British Journal of Nutrition reported that low birth weight babies supplemented with a higher dose of DHA had significantly greater growth rate of their head than those babies supplemented with a normal dose of DHA. They went onto say that in their research experience, this head size growth is associated with increase in mental development.
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.
The Food Science & Nutrition journal published that “cognitive development among breast-fed full-term infants, or in full-term or preterm infants given supplemental DHA, is described as being superior to that in infants consuming formula diets that lack DHA”.
Researchers also 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. 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.
After 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?
Each one has a number of health benefits for your body. However, it’s important to get the right balance of omega-3, -6 and -9 fatty acids in your diet. An imbalance may contribute to a variety of chronic diseases.
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.
There are many types of omega 3s, which differ based on their chemical shape and size. Here are the three most common:
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA): helps reduce inflammation and symptoms of depression.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA): DHA makes up about 8% of brain weight and is extremely important for normal brain development and function.
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA): ALA is mainly used by the body for energy.
Omega-3 fats are a crucial part of human cell membranes. They also have several other important functions, including:
- Improving heart health: Omega-3 fatty acids can increase “good” HDL cholesterol. They can also reduce triglycerides, blood pressure and the formation of arterial plaques.
- Supporting mental health: Taking Omega-3s can reduce symptoms of depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. It can also reduce the risk of psychotic disorders for those who are at risk.
- Reducing weight: Omega-3 fats play an important role in weight management and can help reduce waist circumference.
- Decreasing liver fat: Consuming Omega-3s in your diet can help decrease the amount of fat in your liver.
- Supporting infant brain development: Omega-3s are extremely important for brain development in babies.
- Fighting inflammation: Omega-3 fats are anti-inflammatory, meaning they can reduce the inflammation in your body that can contribute to a number of chronic diseases.
- Preventing dementia: People who eat more fish, which is high in omega-3 fats, tend to have a slower decline in brain function in old age. Omega-3s may also help improve memory in older people, research into this in ongoing and highly important.
- Promoting bone health: People with higher omega-3 intake and blood levels tend to have better bone mineral density.
- Preventing asthma: Omega-3 intake can help reduce symptoms of asthma, especially in early life.
Foods high in Omega-3: oily fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines…) flaxseed (linseed) oil, rapeseed oil, soya oil and soya-based foods, such as tofu, walnuts.
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?
Oleic acid is the most common Omega-9 fatty acid and the most common monounsaturated fatty acid in the diet. 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 Advice
My advice would 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 tend to break the carbon chains and 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 health.