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Study Finds that Pregnant Women Fall Short of Key Nutrient

Public Health Nutrition Journal

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats, meaning our bodies can’t produce them, so it’s essential to get them from our diets, the primary sources being cold-water fatty fish such as salmon and mackerel. Among their noted health benefits, omega-3s can help reduce triglyceride levels, raise HDL (good) cholesterol levels, and lower blood pressure.

Omega-3s are especially important during pregnancy, as they play a key role in fetal neurodevelopment and may also be important for birth weight. While omega-3 requirements for pregnant women have not been established, they are believed to be higher than those for non-pregnant women, and it has long been thought that many pregnant women aren’t getting enough. That notion was recently confirmed by a group of Harvard researchers. Their study was published in February in the journal Public Health Nutrition.


The Study

To identify patterns of omega-3 intake among pregnant women, investigators from the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute used data collected during the Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) study of births from 1999-2020. The reviewed food frequency data on fish consumption from 10,800 women and information on supplement use from 12,646 women from cohorts across the United States.

The results showed that 24.6% of participants reported not eating fish or eating it less than once per month, 40% reported eating fish less than once per week, and only 22% reported eating fish once or twice per week, as recommended. What’s more, only 16% took omega-3 supplements, and contrary to expectations, supplement use was less common among those who consumed less fish, putting that group at even higher risk for insufficient omega-3 fatty acid intake.

While concerns over mercury levels in fish may explain some of the results, they should not deter women from trying to get adequate amounts of omega-3s during pregnancy, the researchers noted. “Omega-3 fatty acids are essential nutrients for supporting positive health outcomes,” said the study’s lead author Emily Oken, Harvard Medical School professor and chair of the Department of Population Medicine at the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute. “Getting enough of these nutrients during pregnancy is vital for preventing preterm birth and promoting optimal child health and neurodevelopment.”


The issue of omega-3 consumption during pregnancy is top-of-mind at the moment, with both the World Health Organization and the U.S. National Academies planning to issue reports on the risks and benefits of fish consumption in pregnancy later this year. The Harvard team hopes that their data will help spur initiatives to promote omega-3 intake during pregnancy.

“Current evidence shows that the benefits of maternal consumption of low-mercury fish, or in its place, omega-3 supplements, outweigh any potential risks,” said Oken. “Our study provides updated information to inform much-needed public health advice and resources to support clinical conversations to encourage consumption of low-mercury fish during pregnancy and intake of omega-3 supplements among those who do not consume fish.”




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