While vegetarianism has its own plethora benefits, it is not entirely spared of negative aspects. There are certain essential nutrients required by our body that are available only in meat and fish and vegetarians have to include supplements of these in their diet to keep healthy. This is especially so for new mothers who also need to breastfeed their newborns. Newborns need an adequate amount of omega 3 fatty acids for their development and they derive this only from the mother’s milk. Fish oil is the richest source of this fatty acid and since vegetarian mothers do not consume this, they need to take supplements.
What is DHA?
The omega 3 fatty acid is made up of different components and each its own nutritional role in the body. One of the most important components is the Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) which makes up for almost 40% of the fatty acid required by in the brain and 6% in the retina. That clearly explains its importance for the thought processes and healthy vision. DHA also forms the building block for neural cells and supports cellular level mental faculties in fetus and infancy stages. It is also known to improve cognitive functions and muscular development. DHA benefits pregnant women by improving their attention and eyesight and in normal adults DHA improves cardiovascular health. DHA is also used to treat type II diabetes. A new mother should ensure that he body has more than adequate quantities of omega 3 fatty acids especially DHA so that her baby can absorb adequate amounts.
DHA deficiency hinders brain and eye development in newborns and young children. Low levels of DHA can also lead to depression, Alzheimer’s disease and other illnesses. These risks stress the importance of supplementing a vegetarian diet with omega 3 fatty acids (DHA in particular) to satisfy the nutritional needs of the mother and the baby.
A word on supplements
Flax seed oil had earlier been thought to be a good source of DHA supplement. Recent studies published in a scientific journal on Prostaglandis, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids evinces that consuming flax seed oil only provides the elements that can form the DHA but does not actually supply preformed DHA. This element called a-Linolenic acid (ALA) is used only in limited quantities by the body which in turn leads to limited DHA production. The end result is the mother’s body does not get the prescribed amount of DHA. Further ALA is required in its original form in certain amounts by the body to function properly and only a part of the remaining ALA is used to make DHA.
The formation of DHA from ALA works in two stages. After using the required amount of ALA, the remainder amount is converted to Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), also an omega-3 fatty acid component required for proper mental functioning. Deficiency of EPA also leads to depression. After using the required quantity of EPA, the remainder is converted to DHA. So ultimately the resultant DHA from ALA is not in quantities required by a breast feeding mother, leading to deficiency in the mother as well as the child.
Fish Oil DHA
The DHA found in fish oil is not originally produced by the fish themselves. On the contrary the algae that the fish feed on produce the DHA which is stored in the fish oil. Thus a vegetarian can still find alternate sources of supplementing DHA instead of switching over to non-vegetarianism. Many pharmaceutical companies produce EPA & DHA supplements (EPA-50 mg and DHA-350 mg) that are sourced from purely vegetarian sources. The algae are grown organically and the DHA derived from them through scientific processes.
Guest post provided by V-Pure: Specialists in vegetarian omega 3 and vegan supplements. Read the original study on the effects of DHA & EPA through breastfeeding for more information and resources.