The Good Fat Facts

The Good Fat Facts
Why EFAs are essential for mother and baby during pregnancy by Angela Stengler, N.D.

If you are pregnant or nursing, are you getting enough EFAs? And better yet, do you even know what they are and how they aid in your child´s growth and development?


Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are fats that cannot be made by the body, but which can be obtained from food sources. EFAs can be broken down into two classes: omega-3 fatty acids, found primarily in certain seed oils (like hemp and flax) and cold water fish, and omega-6 fatty acids, found primarily in other seed oils (including borage and evening primrose).

These "good" fats have been shown to lower cholesterol and blood pressure, as well as reduce the risk for heart disease. EFAs are also crucial for proper brain function and have been shown to aid in the transmission of nerve impulses within the brain, and they are essential for proper brain growth and development in growing babies and children - deficiencies have been linked to impaired learning abilities and poor memory.


Approximately fifty percent of the energy in human breast milk comes from fat. This fat is necessary for the tremendous growth newborns experience and it´s crucial for the structural development of the brain, retina and other vital tissues. Research supports a connection between essential fatty acids in a mother´s diet and EFA levels in her newborn, particularly the essential fatty acid known as docosahexanoic acid (DHA).

DHA is one of the most important essential fatty acids and it plays a pivotal role in the brain and retina development of infants. In lab studies, a deficiency has been associated with visual impairment in the offspring of rhesus monkeys, which could be correlated to similar impairment in human infants as well (part of the reason DHA has received a lot of attention recently).

Fish is the major sources of DHA for humans (for babies, it´s breast milk). And women who consistently eat a diet of cold-water fish (salmon, cod, mackerel) tend to have higher levels of DHA in their breast milk. A study in the January 1998 issue of PEDIATRICS even goes so far as to imply that breast-fed infants may have higher levels of intelligence and greater academic achievement than formula fed infants, due to the DHA contained in a mother´s milk (most commercial formulas contain little to no DHA).

According to the researchers, "exposure to breast feeding is associated with small but detectable increases in childhood cognitive ability and educational achievement, with it being likely that these increases reflect the effects of long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid levels and, particularly, DHA levels on early neurodevelopment."

EFAs and Infant Nutritional Needs

The most critical period in life for an infant to receive omega-3 fatty acids (including DHA) is during its time in the womb and while nursing during early infancy. If a pregnant or lactating mom is eating fish consistently (at least three times a week), there is no need for her to supplement her diet with DHA.

However, if she does not consume fish regularly, then I recommend she add 2000mg of fish oil daily to her vitamin program. Quality fish oil products are available for purchase at health food stores and pharmacies. Make sure the product you buy is free from pesticides and heavy metals. Reputable supplement companies can tell you if they screen their fish oil for these contaminants.

Formula Supplementation

Of course, breastfeeding is the best way to nourish your baby, but if you are unable to nurse, adding DHA to your child´s formula is not only an option, it´s a MUST! Researchers at the University of Milan reported that infants fed DHA supplemented formula had better brain development and visual acuity than infants who did not receive DHA in their formula. Their recommendation was that infants should receive DHA enriched formulas, and I agree with this one hundred percent. Unfortunately, most commercial formulas do not contain adequate amounts of essential fatty acids to ensure optimal health for your baby. DHA liquid supplements are available at the health food store, and directions on how to give it to your baby will be on the label. Another alternative is to add flax seed or evening primrose oil to your infant´s formula.


Flaxseed Oil To start, add 250 - 500 mg to a quart of formula (a day´s worth). Gradually increase the dosage to ½ a teaspoon of flax seed oil daily. Decrease dosage if stools become runny. Adjust dosage until bowels return to their regular consistency.

Evening Primrose Oil Add 250 - 500 mg to a day´s worth of formula, and increase dosage to 1000 mg a day. Again decrease dosage if your infant develops loose stools due to the increase in essential fats.

Post-Pregnancy Deficiencies

Keep in mind that pregnancy may cause new mothers to be deficient in essential fatty acids due to the physiological stress of pregnancy - basically, the baby will drain her reserves.

Therefore, it is important that pregnant women consume more vegetables, whole grains, fish, legumes and seeds, and fewer animal products (like fatty meats or organ tissue). Fried, processed foods, which are high in saturated fats like hydrogenated oils, such as margarine should be eliminated from a pregnant woman´s diet.

Studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acid levels of women during pregnancy decrease considerably compared to women who weren´t pregnant, and these abnormally low fatty acid profiles persisted for up to six weeks after delivery!

Experts even suspect that there is a connection between low EFA levels and postpartum depression in new mothers (all the more reason to increase your intake of EFA rich foods while you are pregnant).

Finally, if you are pregnant and have not been on a whole food rich diet, I suggest supplementing your diet with an essential fatty acid blend (one that contains both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids) while you are pregnant, this should help prevent any deficiency once the baby is here.

March 2000

Angela Stengler is a licensed naturopathic physician based in San Diego, California. Women and children´s health are the focus of the practice run by her and her husband, Dr. Mark Stengler. In addition to maintaining her medical practice, Dr. Stengler hosts a weekly radio show on natural medicine, and she is the author of several books on the benefits of alternative medicine, which you can find at her Web site, The Natural Physician.

(This article is not meant to replace consultation with trained health care professionals. The publisher and author are not responsible for any adverse consequences of effects resulting from the use of any of the information or suggestions contained in this article.)