The Importance of DHA
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is a type of essential, omega 3 fatty acid that helps to keep our hearts and brains healthy. It is especially important in the 3rd trimester of pregnancy when extensive brain and retinal development is occurring in the fetus as well as in early childhood, but should be consumed by all of us regularly for optimal health through our lifetimes. DHA makes up about 20% of the fat in our brain and is necessary for brain cell signaling.
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is another type of essential, omega 3 fatty acid that comes from the plant world. It needs to be converted to DHA to be used in our bodies and this process is not the most efficient. Research varies but the conversion rate of ALA to DHA may be as low as 10%.
Which foods naturally contain DHA?
• Fish and shellfish are the best sources of DHA, especially the fattier fish like salmon, sardines, herring, trout and mackerel. Try to consume these foods at least two times per week.
• Algae is another source of DHA and the best option for vegans or those people that avoid eating fish and seafood. There is growing availability of DHA supplements derived from algae. Discuss all supplements with your healthcare provider before giving them to children.
• Eggs have a small amount of naturally occurring DHA and some “omega 3-enriched eggs” have even more DHA.
• Human milk has varying amounts of DHA based on the mother’s consumption of DHA (and ALA) in her diet. Infant formula contains added DHA.
Which foods naturally contain ALA?
• Nuts and seeds, especially ground flax, chia and walnuts. Ensure nuts are chopped finely for children age 4 and under to reduce choking risk. Chia pudding can be a great healthy snack or dessert to try! Simply soak 2 Tbsp chia seeds in ¾ cup of your favourite milk for 1 hour or overnight in the fridge. Add flavour like vanilla, cinnamon, maple syrup and fruit.
• Vegetable and seed oils like flax and canola. Ensure you don’t heat these past their smoke points as that can destroy these important omega 3 fats.
For more information
Dietitians of Canada has a list of food sources of DHA and ALA: see here.