It’s a No-Brainer: Omega-3s Are Essential for Developing Brains

Posted On Saturday, 11 November 2017
It’s a No-Brainer: Omega-3s Are Essential for Developing Brains

The good news? Women can--and should--continue to enjoy tuna sandwiches during pregnancy. Decades of research show the benefits of omega-3s on developing brains when pregnant and breastfeeding women regularly consume a variety of seafood.

The bad news? Many women are confused about how much seafood is safe to eat when they’re expecting or breastfeeding, or even how much seafood is safe to feed their toddlers and infants starting solids.

The fact is that omega-3 fatty acids—along with other nutrients like calcium, vitamin D, protein and iron—found in seafood are vital during pregnancy, breastfeeding and early childhood, and because of this, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that expectant and breastfeeding moms and young children consume at least two weekly servings of seafood.

Unfortunately, pregnant women in the U.S. consume less than one-quarter (only about 1.9 ounces) of the recommended amount of seafood each week.

Here are five things to keep in mind when considering seafood during these critical development periods.

1) Eating seafood during pregnancy boosts baby brain development. More than half of a baby’s brain is comprised of DHA, the omega-3 found in seafood, like salmon and tuna. One recent study show that moms-to-be who ate fish 2-3 times each week had babies that reached milestones, such as imitating sound, recognizing family members and drinking from a cup more quickly than children born to mothers who didn’t eat fish regularly during pregnancy. Another recent study found that pregnant women who ate least two seafood meals each week helped boost their child’s IQ up three points by age nine.

2) Omega-3s from seafood improve baby eye development. More than half of a baby’s retina is made up of DHA. Studies suggest that too little DHA in an expecting mom’s diet can have a negative effect of baby’s retinal development. Researchers at The Child and Family Research Institute found that women who eat a lot of meat but little fish can be omega-3 deficient, and their babies did not do as well on eye tests as babies from mothers who got plenty of this important nutrient.

3) Encourage parents to offer fish to toddlers and young children. Although the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines recommend that young children eat age-appropriate portions of seafood twice a week, a mere 10 percent of U.S. children meet that recommendation. The World Health Organization (WHO) advises feeding seafood to young children early on to help create healthy eating habits later in life. And, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) now states there is no need to delay the introduction of highly allergenic foods like fish, so parents can begin to introduce fish as an infant starter food after the age of 4-6 months.

4) Regular seafood consumption during pregnancy reduces the risk of “baby blues.” The benefits of omega-3s extend beyond baby and pregnancy, and omega-3s from seafood may help reduce the risk of postnatal depression in moms after childbirth. Research shows that women who eat no seafood during pregnancy are twice as likely to experience depression as those who eat seafood twice a week. Researchers suggest that women who are depressed may have lower levels of blood DHA.

5) It’s easy to eat 2-3 seafood meals each week. Seafood is such a versatile protein-rich food that it’s easy to meet dietary recommendations. One easy way pregnant women—and their families—can eat more seafood is to substitute fish or shellfish for poultry or meat in their favorite dishes. Hamburgers become salmon burgers, pasta with meat sauce becomes pasta with shrimp, and chicken quesadillas become tuna quesadillas. It is important for pregnant women to consume a variety of seafood to maximize nutrient intake and help meet the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines.

There are only seven species that pregnant women, breastfeeding moms and young children need to avoid—shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish, marlin, orange roughy and bigeye tuna (found in sushi). All other commercially-sold seafood can be safely and confidently enjoyed. For fish caught in lakes and streams, it’s best to check local advisories.

You’ll love this delicious and family-friendly fish recipe for Grilled Fish & Avocado Tacos from (Recipe courtesy of Dish On Fish/National Fisheries Institute, photo from Monica Lavin of Lavin Label and Kelli Boyd Photography.)

Grilled Fish & Avocado Tacos
Servings: 4


1 lb. cod (mahi-mahi and tilapia also work well)
2½ Tbsp. olive oil, divided
2½ Tbsp. lime juice, divided
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tsp. chili powder
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 large avocado, cut in half, pit removed
6 Tbsp. nonfat plain Greek yogurt
3-4 cups ready-to-eat broccoli slaw
½ jalapeno pepper, finely chopped
¼ cup cilantro, finely chopped
8 corn tortillas


  1. Preheat grill or heat grill pan on medium heat.
  2. In a large plastic baggie, mix 1 Tbsp. olive oil, 1 Tbsp. lime juice, garlic, chili powder and cumin. Add cod and mix until fish is coated.
  3. Grill fish about 3 minutes per side, or until cooked thoroughly.
  4. Mix ½ Tbsp. olive oil and ½ Tbsp. lemon juice in a small bowl. Rub onto avocado halves and place halves face down on grill. Grill for about 2-3 minutes. Remove and cut in slices.
  5. In a medium bowl, combine remaining oil, lime juice and yogurt. Mix well. Add broccoli slaw, jalapeno and cilantro and combine until coated with yogurt-lime sauce.
  6. Top corn tortillas with grilled fish, slaw mixture and avocado slices.
For more information and recipes, visit To download a patient-friendly guide on eating seafood during pregnancy, click here.

Rima Kleiner, MS, RD, LDN

Rima Kleiner, MS, RD, LDN is a nationally-recognized food and nutrition expert. She helps translate nutrition science into bite-sized, impactful language for media, workshop audiences, policy makers and organizations like the National Fisheries Institute. For more tips and tricks, follow Rima on the Dish on Fish blog.


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