A traditional diet leads to more omega-3 in breast milk

Got omega-3? (photo: Mothering Touch via Flickr)

“If everyone does it, it must be OK”.  Or to paraphrase that: if everyone’s level of a nutrient is X, then X must be fine.  As I noted previously, that’s how the US establishes what is “normal” intake for omega-3.  It’s the (pathetically low) level that represents average intake.

Omega-3, particularly DHA, is especially critical for developing fetal and infant brain, eye and nerve tissue.  A fetus depends entirely on the mother to supply omega-3, which means the mother needs to be consuming it.  And if that infant is breastfed, the mother’s milk is the sole source of omega-3.  If the mother has a poor intake, the breast milk level will be low.  Several years ago, formula companies began adding DHA to infant formula, based on the DHA level from breast milk of  “average” American women.    Because “average” must be just fine, right?

A new study in the journal Maternal and Child Nutrition questions that assumption.  Researchers compared omega-3 levels in breast milk of Amerindian women in Bolivia, eating a traditional diet, to that of American women, eating a Westernized diet.  The Bolivian women’s diet consisted primarily of fresh water fish, game meat and locally grown staples like plantains, rice, manioc and fruit.  Result: Amerindian women consumed more omega-3 fatty acids in their diet, and their breast milk had significantly more omega-3 fats, compared to the American subjects:

  • almost 4-1/2 times as much DHA
  • almost 3 times as much EPA

Breast milk from the American women was far higher in omega-6 fatty acids.  As the authors noted, the omega-3 levels in the Bolivian milk samples ranked in the 95th percentile for samples from around the world, while the level for the American women ranked in the 17th percentile.  And that is the so-called “normal” level used as a reference for adding DHA to infant formula.

Clearly breast milk omega-3 depends on the mother’s intake, and clearly levels vary widely around the globe.  There is no research proving that any particular level is either optimal or merely sufficient to support the demands of the infant brain’s growth spurt during the first 2 years of life.  Nevertheless, the study authors reason that breast milk from women eating a traditional unprocessed diet probably reflects breast milk as it originally evolved to support rapid infant brain growth.  So maybe that level would be a better standard for formula companies to follow.  I would add: pregnant and breast feeding women should be sure to include high omega-3 foods in their daily diet.

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