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      Pregnancy nutrition: Essential fats

      Brain Booster

      Essential fats: Everything you need to know

      Fats are often considered to be unhealthy. But when it comes to the growth and development of your body and baby during pregnancy, certain fats have an essential role to play. Learn which type of fats to include in your diet, and which ones to limit.

      Fats: The good and the bad

      We’re often told to limit our intake of fatty foods – advice that can lead us to believe that all fats are bad for our health. While it’s true that some fats carry health risks, fat is an important source of energy and helps the body absorb certain nutrients. It also provides essential fatty acids that your body can’t make, but which are vital for your baby’s development throughout pregnancy1.

      There are three types of fats: saturated fats, trans fats and unsaturated fats1.

      • Saturated fats – found in fatty meat, full-fat dairy foods and many snack foods such as biscuits, cakes and sweets; these can cause a build-up of cholesterol over time. Keeping your intake of saturated fats low can reduce your risk of heart disease and excess weight gain1.
      • Trans fats – present in low levels in meat and dairy products, these are also found in hydrogenated vegetable oil, and can raise cholesterol levels1.
      • Unsaturated fats – this name covers the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats that are essential for your baby’s growth1. These include certain long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, some of which play an important role in the development of the brain, eyes and nervous system2.
      Unsaturated fats help your body absorb fat-soluble nutrients, such as vitamin D

      The different types of unsaturated fats

      Unsaturated fats are an important part of a well-balanced pregnancy diet, providing all the benefits of fats and less of the risks. With a high energy content, you should eat them in moderation to keep your weight gain on the right track.

      …Although some fats are healthier than others, for the maximum benefits you should still eat them in moderation.

      As well as being a good source of energy, unsaturated fats act as a healthy carrier for the fat-soluble vitamins that are needed for your baby’s development, particularly3:

      • Vitamin D – regulates calcium and phosphate, which help to keep bones and teeth healthy4
      • Vitamin E – helps give cells their structure by supporting cell membranes5
      • Vitamin K – aids blood clotting and also contributes to bone health6

      There are two groups of unsaturated fats: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Monounsaturated fats are found in olive oil, avocados, nuts, nut oils and nut butters. Polyunsaturated fats are found in sunflower oil, some margarines and mayonnaise. Omega 3s are a particularly beneficial type of long chain polyunsaturated fats (LCPs)7, which play an important role in your baby’s brain, visual and nervous system development.

      Avocados are a great source of unsaturated fat.

      Essential fats for a healthy brain

      Fat is your developing baby’s main source of energy, fuelling the intense and incredible development that happens from conception to birth. It also contributes to the make-up of your baby’s brain, which is around 60% fat8.

      While they’re still in your womb, they’re relying on you to provide the fat they need, so getting the balance right is essential. As well as providing energy, studies show that an adequate intake of healthy fats during pregnancy is linked to a lower risk of childhood obesity9 and normal cognitive development in their early years10.

      How much fat do I need during pregnancy?

      Ideally, no more than 35% of your daily calorie intake should come from fats11. Many people eat within this limit but there is a tendency to consume too many saturated fats and not enough of the healthier types1.

      The Department of Health recommends that saturated fats should make up a maximum of 11% of your energy intake, which is equivalent to around 20g7. The reference intake of total fat per day is 70g7.

      To tip the balance towards unsaturated fats, eat more of the following foods or other similar options7:

      • Avocados
      • Sunflower seeds
      • Olive oil
      • Pine nuts
      • Salmon
      • Mackerel
      • Sardines

      Note: although the oily fish on this list are an excellent source of Omega 3s, you should limit your intake to 2 portions per week during pregnancy, due to the potentially high levels of mercury they can contain12.

      Saturated fat can increase the level of cholesterol in your blood. Because this is one of the factors that increases the risk of heart disease, it is important not to eat too much. It can also cause you to gain more weight than you need to during pregnancy.

      Foods containing high levels of saturated fat:

      • Fatty cuts of meat
      • Full-fat dairy foods
      • Cakes
      • Biscuits
      • Crisps
      • Cream and ice cream

      The ‘healthiest’ type of fats, unsaturated varieties, play an important role in your baby’s growth and development. The fish sources listed here provide Omega fats known as LCPs that support your baby’s developing brain. Oily fish are excellent sources.

      Foods containing high levels of unsaturated fat:

      • Salmon
      • Mackerel
      • Sardines
      • Avocados
      • Sunflower seeds
      • Olive oil

      Found naturally in small amounts in meat and dairy foods, these fats can raise cholesterol, which may in turn increase your risk of heart disease over time. Many supermarkets in the UK have stopped using the main source of these fats (hydrogenated vegetable oil) in their foods, helping to reduce many people’s intakes. And if a food does contain hydrogenated vegetable oil then this must be declared on the packaging.

      Foods containing trans fat:

      • Meat

      Next steps

      Increase your intake of essential fats with the following food swaps7:

      • Choose lean cuts of meat instead of fatty cuts
      • Grill, steam or bake foods instead of frying
      • Use olive and rapeseed oil instead of butter for cooking
      • Snack on a handful of nuts instead of crisps or biscuits

      1. NHS UK. Fat – the facts [Online]. 2013. Available at: [Accessed June 2014]

      2. Gibson RA et al. Conversion of linoleic acid and alpha‐linolenic acid to long‐chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFAs), with a focus on pregnancy, lactation and the first 2 years of life. Matern Child Nutr 2011;7(2):17-26.

      3. British Nutrition Foundation. Fat [Online]. 2013. Available [Accessed June 2014]

      4. NHS UK. Vitamins and minerals – vitamin D [Online]. 2012. Available at: [Accessed June 2014]

      5. NHS UK. Vitamins and minerals – vitamin E [Online]. 2012. Available at: [Accessed June 2014]

      6. NHS UK. Vitamins and minerals – vitamin K [Online]. 2012. Available at: [Accessed June 2014]

      7. British Nutrition Foundation. Good fats and bad fats explained [Online]. 2013. Available at: [Accessed June 2014]

      8. Chen JY. Essential fatty acids and human brain. Acta Neurol Taiwan 2009;18(4):231-41.

      9. Donahue SMA et al. Prenatal fatty acid status and child adiposity at age 3 y: results from a US pregnancy cohort. Am J Clin Nutr 2011;93(4):780-788.

      10. Gibson RA et al. Conversion of linoleic acid and alpha‐linolenic acid to long‐chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFAs), with a focus on pregnancy, lactation and the first 2 years of life. Matern Child Nutr 2011;7(2):17-26.

      11. FSA. FSA Nutrient and Food Based Guidelines for UK Institutions [Online]. 2007. Available at: [Accessed June 2014]

      12. NHS UK. Fish and shellfish [Online]. 2013. Available at:[Accessed June 2014]

      Last reviewed: 18th August 2014

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      Your baby's future health begins here

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