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Omega-3 fatty acids are an essential nutrient in the body. They are used by the body in the brain and eyes and are thought to have many disease-preventing benefits. It’s important that everyone consumes enough of them, but it is even more so for pregnant and breastfeeding women and their toddlers as they develop – especially if they are eating a vegetarian diet.
There are three main omega-3 fatty acids:
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
All three of these play crucial roles in the body and can only be obtained from food. DHA is considered to be one of the most important fatty acids in the brain development of infants and toddlers. In fact, DHA is the most abundant building blocks of brain and retina tissue and adequate DHA levels have been associated with intelligence and happiness later in life. Because of this, breast milk is extremely high in DHA. But what about after breastfeeding?
The most plentiful sources of DHA are cold water fatty fish, like salmon and tuna. This can leave those wanting to raise their child on a vegetarian diet (or those who have a toddler who just doesn’t like fish!) in a tough place. Fortunately for vegetarian families, there are plenty of ways to ensure your toddler’s brain health if you prefer not to eat fish or use fish oil supplements.
While there are no common vegetarian sources of DHA, it is made in the body in small amounts during the breakdown of ALA, along with EPA. Many oils and seeds are plentiful in ALA – chia seed, flax, hempseed, walnuts, pecans, olive oil, and more. Because of this, most adult vegetarians and vegans have a low but steady level of DHA in their body.
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For infants and toddlers with growing brains, they may need a little more. There is no established dietary reference intake for DHA specifically, but the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids suggests a total intake of 15 milligrams of DHA per pound of body weight in children over the age of 1. Many pediatricians recommend a DHA supplement for omnivorous and vegetarian children alike, as well as their pregnant and nursing mothers.
Vegetarians can take comfort in knowing that there are kid-friendly supplement options. Since fish get their DHA from algae, it is only natural that DHA supplements derived from algae have hit the market. Algal oil DHA has been found to be as effective as DHA from fish and is available in liquid and capsule form for kids of all ages.
All in all, for a healthy growing brain, make sure your toddler is getting at least one serving a day of oil or seeds high in omega-3s along with an appropriate algal oil supplement. Vegetarian moms-to-be and breastfeeding moms should also supplement with DHA for baby’s best start!
Omega 3 Banana Avacado “Ice Cream” Recipe (Vegan)
2 ripe frozen bananas
¼ cup pistachios
1 tablespoon sliced almonds
1 tablespoon shredded coconut
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1. Chop bananas into pieces a day or two ahead of time and place into freezer
2. If pistachios are still in shells, remove them
3. Place ingredients into a blender or food processor; blend until thick and creamy
4. Spoon mixture into bowl! If you would like it thicker, place it into the freezer for a couple hours after making
5. Top with well-ground up pistachios or flax seed for an extra boost of omega-3
Tip: This recipe can be modified to create a puree for little ones transitioning to solid foods, using just half a banana and half an avocado!
Written by: Amanda Dunham