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At no other time of life is nutrition as important as during pregnancy. Pregnancy is a time of great change and growth for the developing fetus as well as the mother. Everything the mother puts into her body provides the building blocks for the child’s body and mind.
An essential piece to the pregnancy nutrition puzzle is the proper fats. Fats are very important in everyone’s diet but especially so for the developing fetus. Fats are the main building block of the brain and nervous system. In fact, more than 60 percent of the dry weight of the brain is fat. The fats in the nervous system are required for insulation of the nerves to preserve messages and for connections between the nerves allowing information to be exchanged (1). Deficiencies in the proper fats contribute to many disorders such as tremors, learning problems, numbness, developmental delays, seizures, strokes, and autism. On the other hand, proper amounts of the “good” fats can help both mom and baby reach their fullest potential.
First of all, there is a major difference between different types of fats. The most harmful fats you can put into your body, pregnant or not, are trans unsaturated fats. Trans fats are those unsaturated fats which have been heated to change the bonds in the structure. Trans fats tend to be solids at room temperature. The reason trans fats are so harmful is because of their bond structure. Trans fats cause our cells to become rigid and inflexible. This means our nerves have a more difficult time passing information from one nerve to the next. Unfortunately, you find trans fats in almost every package on the grocery store shelf and in every fried food. Included in this group of foods loaded with trans fats are our kids’ favorites, french fries. Almost every cracker, cookie, and cereal you pick up has at least one ingredient listed as fractionated or hydrogenated oil, denoting a trans fat. Trans fats help retain the shelf life for foods, give crackers their crispiness, and moistness to cakes. According to the FDA, there is no safe level for trans fats as they are so damaging to the body. Trans fats are also major contributors to clogged arteries, coronary dysfunction, and diabetes. Especially when pregnant, trans fats do not provide strong building blocks for a developing fetal brain and nervous system.
The best choice of fat to build a strong fetal nervous system and brain are omega 3 polyunsaturated fats such as docosahexaenoic acid also known as DHA and eicosapentaenoic acid known as EPA. DHA and EPA are long chain fats essential for growth and function of the brain in the fetus and infants (2). DHA is the heaviest hitter contributing to improved learning ability due to proper brain function. Taking in the correct amount of the omega 3 essential fatty acids allows our brain to function at a higher level by ensuring accurate and rapid communication between nerve cells. On the other hand, a deficiency in the omega 3 polyunsaturated fats can adversely affect learning, behavior, visual acuity, and retinal function in infants (3).
Throughout pregnancy, maternal fatty acid blood levels drop. This results from the growing infant’s need for the fatty acids to build developing brain tissue. The only way the developing fetus gets the long-chain fatty acids necessary to properly develop the neural tissue is from the mother. This leaves the mother with depleted stores of essential fatty acids for her own nervous system health. When her system is depleted of these fatty acids, they are not easy to replenish. As a result of this, with each pregnancy, DHA supplies in mother and, therefore, baby, are decreased (4). Mothers with low fatty acid levels have been shown to have higher levels of postpartum depression because of the difficulty the nerves have to pass accurate messages. Because of this, it becomes even more important for mom to supplement her EPA and DHA intake during pregnancy, particularly in the 3rd trimester when fetal brain development is most rapid and proficient (5).