Heard about DHA fortified infant formulas or DHA for the developing toddler’s brain? DHA seems like an alien term although most of us are quite familiar with Omega 3.Well, DHA is a type of omega 3 fatty acid, so often these terms are used interchangeably. What we want to highlight today is the fact that the whole hype around DHA ……. is actually true. Yes, it is panacea or cure-all and its claims are backed by strong scientific evidence seen in humans and not just laboratories.
Omega 3 or DHA’s – how do they differ ?
Omega 3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids which play an important role as precursors to hormones that regulate blood clotting, contraction and relaxation of artery walls, and inflammation. The omega 3 fatty acid is the alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) which is converted to the fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in the body. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is found in vegetable oils and nuts (especially walnuts), flax seeds and flaxseed oil, leafy vegetables, and some animal fat, especially in grass-fed animals.
The conversion of ALA to DHA and EPA is limited and hence foods containing ALA cannot be relied upon as a great source of EPA and DHA. Direct sources of EPA and DHA is certain algae and fish and fish oil supplements.
The health claims of Omega 3 fatty acids can be attributed mainly to DHA and it should be noted that this DHA is present only and only in algae and the fish the consume these algae.
So where does fish get its DHA?
Fish obtain EPA and DHA by eating algae that have the flax-type omega-3s typical of plants. This type of fat prevents the cell membranes of the cold water fish from turning too stiff in the extremely low temperatures.
So humans should also make DHA from flaxseeds. But actually human body is not very efficient in making EPA and DHA from flaxseeds. So, fish oil has been recommended extensively as a source of omega 3 fatty acids by all health experts in order to prevent cardiovascular and inflammatory conditions.
But what about our vegetarian group? They have inhibitions about taking fish or fish oil.
Vegetarian DHA from algae
Some other type of microscopic algae directly produce DHA not the flax-type omega 3’s. Growing such algae directly can help reduce burden on fishing to obtain DHA’s. Also, such algae is grown under controlled conditions and is organic and most importantly, Vegetarian!! since algae is a plant.
Algae-derived DHA is approved for infant formulas and already is found in many applications, including fruit juices, milk, soy milk, cooking oil, etc.
Researchers have shown that algal DHA has almost the same health benefits as that of the fish DHA, so it can be considered as a safe and sustainable source for vegetarians.
DHA can help prevent heart disease and stroke, help control lupus, eczema, and rheumatoid arthritis, and play protective roles in cancer and other conditions. In addition to prevention of diseases, omega 3 fatty acids play very vital role in developmental phases such as pregnancy, lactation and infancy for brain growth, vision and immunity. Considering these multiple benefits of DHA, one must make sure to include it in daily diet through food or supplements.
Psst..psst… physicians may not prescribe or emphasize this nutrient in daily diet..why?… chances are that he wants you to visit often!
Dr Pooja Chhawcharia is the Senior Nutritionist at eKincare with over 7 years of experience in Nutrition education, diet counseling and research. She is a Registered Dietician with the Indian Dietetic Association and Certified Diabetes Educator recognized by the International Diabetes federation . She is also interested in ancillary sciences such as Yoga and Naturopathy.