Is Vegan Breast Milk Sufficient?

What Can Vegan Moms Do?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney 

breastfeedingA whole food vegan diet is incredibly healthy:

  • Vegans are less likely to be overweight than the general population.
  • Vegans have a lower risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, hypertension, and several other diseases than the general population.
  • Whole food vegan diets are anti-inflammatory, so they lower the risk of autoimmune diseases and the “itis” diseases.

But vegan diets leave out meat, dairy, and eggs. Vegetarians without proper dietary advice are at high risk of inadequate intake of vitamin B12, vitamin D, iron, iodine, calcium, and DHA. And, of course, the risk of inadequate intake is even greater for vegans than it is for vegetarians, who may include some dairy and eggs in their diet.

So, it is legitimate to ask whether a vegetarian or vegan diet is sufficient for pregnancy and lactation. The short answer is that they can be if they are properly designed and properly supplemented.

But that is not an easy task, as evidenced by a recent study (N Ureta-Velasco et al., Nutrients 15:1855, 2023) comparing the breast milk of omnivore moms with the breast milk of vegetarian and vegan moms.

How Was This Study Done?

clinical studyThis study was done with 92 omnivore moms, 9 vegetarian moms (5-ovo-vegetarian and 4 lacto-ovo-vegetarians) and 11 vegan moms between August 2017 and February 2020 at the Regional Human Milk Bank at the “12 de Octubre” University Hospital in Madrid, Spain. The vegetarian and vegan moms were grouped together for data analysis.

On Day 0 of the study, participants went to the regional milk bank for blood and urine samples to determine nutritional status, a screening to determine health and socioeconomic status, and for food frequency questionnaire to characterize their habitual diet.

On days 1-5, they returned to the regional milk bank with a 24-hour diet recall of the previous day and to express 25 ml of breast milk to determine its nutrient content. On day 6, they returned to express a larger sample of breast milk to determine its lipid content (including EPA and DHA).

Note: Both the food frequency questionnaire and the 24-hour dietary recalls included nutrients derived from supplements.

What Did The Study Show About Dietary Intake of Key Nutrients?

Questioning WomanThis was a comprehensive study, so I will just cover the highlights here:

Birth Weight: Compared to the children of omnivore moms, the children of vegetarian/vegan moms were more likely to:

  • Have less weight gain during pregnancy (2 pounds less on average).
  • Be underweight at birth (60% of babies born to vegetarian/vegan moms were in the underweight category of birth weights versus 25% for babies born to omnivore moms).

This is probably because vegetarian/vegan moms:

  • Consumed slightly fewer calories per day (2146 versus 2319).
  • Consumed significantly less protein (67 g/d versus 96 g/d).
  • Were 10 times more likely to be underweight prior to pregnancy (10% versus 1%).

This is a concern because low birth weight increases the risk of physical and mental health issues later in life.

Supplement Use: The nutrients of greatest concern in a vegetarian/vegan diet are vitamin B12, vitamin D, iron, iodine, calcium, and DHA. For all these nutrients except DHA, this message appears to have gotten out to most vegetarian/vegan mothers because they were compensating for these potential deficiencies through supplementation.

For example, when they looked at average daily intake of these key nutrients from supplements, they found:

Nutrient Vegetarian/Vegan Moms Omnivore Moms
Vitamin D 1,080 IU (27mcg) 240 IU (6 mcg)
Folic acid 400 mcg 280 mcg
Vitamin B12 312 mcg 2 mcg
Calcium 566 mg 164 mg
Iron 40 mg 29 mg
DHA 100 mg 180 mg

However, that doesn’t tell the whole story, because not all vegetarian/vegan moms took supplements. When the investigators looked at the percent taking supplements, this is what they found.

Nutrient Vegetarian/Vegan Moms Omnivore Moms
Vitamin D 50% 50%
Folic acid 35% 61%
Vitamin B12 85% 60%
Calcium 15% 37%
Iron 25% 43%
DHA 10% 16%

Dietary Intake (Food + Supplements): The extra supplementation clearly played an important role because when the investigators looked at the overall intake from food and supplements, they found:

Nutrient Vegetarian/Vegan Moms Omnivore Moms
Vitamin D 224 IU (5.6 mcg) 432 IU (10.8 mcg)
Folate + Folic acid 668 mcg 473 mcg
Vitamin B12 258 mcg 6.9 mcg
Calcium 910 mg 1148 mg
Iron 31 mg 25 mg
DHA 110 mg 380 mg

Again, this doesn’t tell the whole story. Some women didn’t supplement. When the investigators looked at the percentage of women getting an inadequate intake of key nutrients from food plus supplements they found:

Nutrient Vegetarian/Vegan Moms Omnivore Moms
Vitamin D 75% 88%
Folate + Folic acid 0% 39%
Vitamin B12 25% 0%
Calcium 45% 40%
Iron Not reported Not reported
DHA Not reported Not reported

These results clearly show the need for supplementation. While the average intake from food plus supplements looked good, there were a significant percentage of women who weren’t getting adequate intake of key nutrients because they didn’t supplement.

The exceptions were folate + folic acid for vegetarian/vegans because their diet is rich in folate-containing foods and vitamin B12 for omnivores because their diet is rich in foods containing B12.

Is Vegan Breast Milk Sufficient?

Of course, the proof is in the pudding. When the investigators looked at the nutrient content of breast milk, this is what they found:

Nutrient Vegetarian/Vegan

Moms

Omnivore

Moms

Reference

Value*

Vitamin D3 1.1 mcg/L 3.4 mcg/L 0.25-2 mcg/L
Folate + Folic acid 19 mcg/L 20 mcg/l 80 mcg/L
Vitamin B12 0.74 mcg/L 0.65 mcg/L 0.5 mcg/L
Calcium 83 mg/L 99 mg/L 200-300 mg/L
Iron Not reported Not reported
DHA 0.15 g/100 g fat 0.33 g/100 g fat 0.35 g/100 g fat

*Reference values established by WHO

  • The chief difference between breast milk from vegetarian/vegan moms was in DHA levels.
  • That’s because the diet of vegetarians and vegans contains very little DHA, and very few vegetarian/vegan women in this study supplemented with DHA.
  • This study also found that breast milk from both vegetarian/vegan moms and omnivore moms was low in folate + folic acid, calcium, nicotinamide, and selenium. They said that requires follow-up in future studies.

The authors concluded, “The most important contribution of this study is the detailed and comprehensive description of micronutrients and lipids in human milk from omnivore milk donors and vegetarian/vegan women…Of particular concern is the lower DHA content in the milk of our vegetarian/vegan group. However, raising awareness and administering proper supplementation could bridge the gap, as has been the case with vitamin B12.”

What Can Vegan Moms Do?

This study emphasizes the importance of careful planning and supplementation during pregnancy and lactation if you are a vegetarian or vegan mom.

For example, the vegetarian/vegan women in this study were more likely to have low birthweight babies, and low birthweight infants are at risk for health issues later in life. That means:

  • Careful planning is required to select calorie- and protein-rich plant foods.
  • A high-quality plant protein supplement can be a great help.

Supplementation is particularly important during lactation to assure your breast milk adequately nourishes your newborn baby. For example, in this study:

  • The vitamin B12 level in the breast milk from vegetarian/vegan moms was adequate because 85% of them supplemented with vitamin B12.
  • The DHA level in the breast milk from vegetarian/vegan moms was inadequate because only 10% of them supplemented with DHA.
  • The authors of this study recommended that vegetarian and vegan moms consume at least 200 mg of DHA from algal sources while they are breastfeeding.

However, finding a prenatal supplement that provides all the nutrients you need prior to pregnancy, during pregnancy, and while breastfeeding is challenging. I gave you 7 tips for choosing the best prenatal supplements in a previous “Health Tips From the Professor” article.

The Bottom Line 

A recent study asked whether the breast milk of vegetarian and vegan moms was sufficient for the needs of their newborn babies. The study found that:

  • Folate levels in their breast milk were sufficient because the diets of vegetarians and vegans contain many folate-rich foods.
  • Vitamin B12 levels in their breast milk were sufficient because 85% of the vegetarian and vegan women in this study supplemented with vitamin B12.
  • DHA levels in their breast milk were insufficient because the diets of vegetarian and vegan women are very low in DHA, and only 10% of the women in this study supplemented with DHA.
  • The authors of this study recommended that vegetarian and vegan moms consume at least 200 mg of DHA from algal sources while they are breastfeeding.

This study reinforces the need for supplementation during lactation to assure your breast milk adequately nourishes your newborn baby.

However, finding a prenatal supplement that provides all the nutrients you need prior to pregnancy, during pregnancy, and while breastfeeding is challenging. I gave you 7 tips for choosing the best prenatal supplement in a previous “Health Tips From the Professor” article.

For more information on this study read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

___________________________________________________________________________

My posts and “Health Tips From the Professor” articles carefully avoid claims about any brand of supplement or manufacturer of supplements. However, I am often asked by representatives of supplement companies if they can share them with their customers.

My answer is, “Yes, as long as you share only the article without any additions or alterations. In particular, you should avoid adding any mention of your company or your company’s products. If you were to do that, you could be making what the FTC and FDA consider a “misleading health claim” that could result in legal action against you and the company you represent.

For more detail about FTC regulations for health claims, see this link.

https://www.ftc.gov/business-guidance/resources/health-products-compliance-guidance

 

 

Prenatal Supplements Strike Out Again

Is It Three Strikes And You Are Out?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Pregnant CoupleIf you are pregnant, you want the best for your unborn baby. Your doctor has recommended a prenatal supplement, but do the prenatal supplements on the market meet your needs? A few months ago, I shared two studies that concluded that most prenatal supplements on the market are woefully inadequate.

In fact, the authors said, “[Our] analysis found that prenatal supplements vary widely in content, often only contain a subset of essential vitamins, and the levels were often below…recommendations.”

In other words, their study found that most prenatal vitamins on the market may not be adequate to support your needs and the needs of your child through pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Now, a third study on the topic has been published (KA Saunders et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 117: 823-829, 2023. It differs from the previous studies in that:

1) The previous two studies took a comprehensive approach, while this study focused on 6 key nutrients.

  • The previous studies included all nutrients important for a healthy pregnancy including choline, iodine, and vitamin K, which have only recently been shown to be important for a healthy pregnancy.
  • This study focused on 6 nutrients, vitamin A, vitamin D, folic acid, calcium, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids, which have long been recognized as essential for a healthy pregnancy.

2) The previous two studies focused on prenatal supplements, while this study focused on all supplements that might be taken by pregnant women.

3) The previous two studies asked whether supplements provided recommended amounts of all nutrients needed for a healthy pregnancy. This study took a “Goldilocks approach” and asked whether levels of these 6 essential nutrients were appropriate (“just right”). The study:

  • Started by determining the intake of these 6 key nutrients by American women. The authors of the study then added the amount of each nutrient provided by the supplements in their study to the amount of that nutrient in the diet of American women and:
    • Calculated the minimum amount of each nutrient that would be needed to assure that 90% of American women taking a particular supplement would meet the recommended intake for pregnant and lactating women.
    • Calculated the maximum amount of each nutrient provided by supplements in their study to assure that that 90% of American women taking that supplement would not get potentially toxic amounts of that nutrient.
  • In other words, for each of the 6 nutrients they calculated a supplemental dose range that was neither too low nor too high. They called this the “appropriate dose range” for each nutrient. Goldilocks would have called it “just right”.

I’m sure you are anxiously waiting to learn what their study found. But before we go there, I will describe how the study was done.

How Was The Study Done?

clinical studyFor the dietary intake portion of the study, the authors used dietary intake data previously collected from the Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) study.

The ECHO study is a consortium of 69 medical centers across multiple states. It is an observational study of mothers and their offspring designed to understand the effects of early life exposures on child health and development.

The current study analyzed dietary intake data for 2450 participants from 6 medical centers across 5 states in the ECHO study. The women in this study were diverse with respect to ethnicity, education, and weight.

All pregnant women in the current study completed at least one 24-hour dietary recall between 6-week gestation until delivery (24% completed one dietary recall. 76% completed two or more dietary recalls). Dietary intake was generally assessed with an expert interviewer and included all foods and beverages consumed in the previous 24 hours.

For the supplement portion of the study, the authors used the NIH Dietary Supplement Label Database because it is the most complete listing of supplements in the US. The authors selected 20,547 supplements that contained at least one of the 6 essential nutrients from this database.

To determine which of the 20,547 supplements contained appropriate levels of the 6 nutrients (vitamin A, vitamin D, folic acid, calcium, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids) selected for this study, the authors used the process described in the introduction above. Briefly:

  • The authors added the amount of each nutrient provided by the supplements in their study to the amount of that nutrient in the diet of American women and:
  • Calculated the minimum amount of each nutrient that would be needed to assure that 90% of American women taking a particular supplement would meet the recommended intake for pregnant and lactating women.
  • Calculated the maximum amount of each nutrient provided by supplements in their study to assure that that 90% of American women taking that supplement would not get potentially toxic amounts of that nutrient.

In other words, for each of the 6 nutrients they calculated a supplemental dose range that was neither too low nor too high. They called this the “appropriate dose range” for each nutrient.

Why Are The 6 Nutrients Included In This Study Important?

Dietary Intake Is Often Inadequate

The diet analysis of pregnant American women in this study found:

  • 42% were at risk of inadequate vitamin A intake.
  • 96% were at risk of inadequate vitamin D intake.
  • 45% were at risk of inadequate folic acid intake.
  • 55% were at risk of inadequate calcium intake.
  • 93% were at risk of inadequate iron intake.
  • 67% were at risk of inadequate omega-3 intake.

The percentage of women at risk for inadequate intake of these nutrients varied with age, ethnicity, and income levels. But the overall message is clear. Most American women are not getting enough of these essential nutrients from their diet alone.

The Risk of Inadequate and Excessive Intake Of These Nutrients

These 6 nutrients were chosen in part because reviews by the Cochrane Collaboration have concluded that inadequate intake of these nutrients are associated with complications during pregnancy and delivery. They can also adversely affect the health and normal development of the baby.

This is important because the Cochrane Collaboration is considered the Gold Standard of clinical studies. You can find a more detailed description of Cochrane Collaboration studies and why they are the Gold standard here.

[Note: The Cochrane Collaboration has not yet evaluated choline, iodine, and vitamin K for pregnant women, but their inclusion in prenatal supplements is supported by multiple clinical studies.]

In addition, excess intake of all these nutrients except omega-3s can harm both the fetus and the mother. The is why the Food and Nutrition Board has set ULs (Upper Limits – the level above which toxicity can occur) for 5 of the 6 nutrients. This is important because previous studies have suggested that up to 25% of women may be getting toxic levels of one or more of these nutrients when you consider both their dietary intake and their prenatal supplement.

Summary

In other words, both too little and too much of these nutrients can harm the mom and her baby. It is critical that prenatal supplements get the dosing right.

It is for that reason that the authors of this study have set an “appropriate dose range” (high enough that 90% of women have enough of each nutrient to prevent deficiency and low enough that 90% of women do not exceed the UL for each nutrient) as the standard for evaluating the adequacy and safety of supplements for pregnant women.

Prenatal Supplements Strike Out Again

Of the 20,547 supplements (421 labeled as prenatal supplements) available on the US market as of December 31, 2022, the investigators reported that:

  • Only 69 (0.3%) supplements contained all 6 nutrients considered essential for a healthy pregnancy.
  • Only 1 supplement contained all 6 nutrients at the appropriate doses, and it wasn’t even labeled as a prenatal supplement.

In addition:

  • One supplement containing all 6 nutrients put 100% of the women in their study at risk for excessive intake of folic acid.
  • Another supplement containing all 6 nutrients put 46% of the women in their study at risk of inadequate calcium intake.

The authors concluded, “Almost no US dietary supplements provide key nutrients in the doses needed for pregnant women. Affordable and convenient products that fill the gap between food-based intake and estimated requirements of pregnancy without inducing excess intake are needed to support pregnant women and their offspring.”

In short, the conclusion of this study can be summed up as, “Prenatal Supplements Strike Out Again”.

[Note: It sometime takes a while for supplement labels to be posted in the NIH Dietary Supplement Label Database. The authors acknowledged that this study may not include supplements introduced or reformulated in the last quarter of 2022.]

Is It Three Strikes And You Are Out? 

pregnant women taking vitaminsIf you are pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant, this should be a wake-up call.

70% of pregnant women in this country take prenatal supplements, usually based on recommendations by their health care provider. They assume the prenatal supplements meet their needs and the needs of their unborn baby.

Yet three studies evaluating the adequacy of prenatal supplements have been published in the past few months. They took very different approaches in evaluating the supplements. But all three studies concluded that the vast majority of prenatal supplements on the market are woefully inadequate.

You may be wondering, “Is it three strikes, and you are out?” Are there no decent prenatal supplements on the market?  The answer to those questions is, “No. There are good prenatal supplements on the market.”

You may be wondering how I can say that in the face of such overwhelming negative data. That’s because while all 3 studies were very good studies, they each had “blind spots”:

1) Each of the studies used very stringent criteria for identifying adequate prenatal supplements. In some cases, their criteria were stricter than the RDA recommendations and the recommendations of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology for pregnant and lactating women. It could be argued that their criteria were too stringent.

2) In the case of the current study, it could also be argued that evaluating only 6 nutrients is not a good criterion for evaluating the adequacy of prenatal supplements. For example, I looked up the one supplement rated as adequate in this study. It does provide appropriate doses of the 6 nutrients this study focused on. It also provides appropriate doses of vitamin K and iodine. But it does not provide choline. It is a very good supplement for women, but it is not the perfect prenatal supplement.

So, what can you do? How can you find the best prenatal supplement for you? Unfortunately, you cannot rely on advice from your friends or your health professional. You cannot rely on advertisements. That is a good place to start, but you have to do your own sleuthing.

With that in mind, I have listed 7 simple rules for selecting the best possible prenatal supplement in  my article about the first two studies. Use these rules for evaluating every prenatal supplement you come across. Happy sleuthing.

The Bottom Line 

A recent study evaluated all 20,547 supplements on the US market to see if they met the needs of pregnant women in this country.

  • They focused on 6 nutrients (vitamin A, vitamin D, folic acid, calcium, iron, and omega-3s) known to be essential for a healthy pregnancy.
  • They determined the dietary intake for all 6 nutrients in a cross section of pregnant women in the US.
  • They added the amount of the 6 nutrients in each of the 20,547 supplements to the dietary intake of those nutrients by pregnant women.
  • They then asked which supplements provided the “appropriate dose” of all 6 nutrients. They defined “appropriate dose” as the dose range that was.
    • High enough to prevent deficiency of that nutrient in 90% of pregnant women taking the supplement…and…
    • Low enough to prevent toxicity from that nutrient in 90% of pregnant women taking the supplement.
  • In other words, for each of the 6 nutrients they calculated a supplemental dose range that was neither too low nor too high.

Of the 20,547 supplements (421 labeled as prenatal supplements) available on the US market:

  • Only 69 (0.3%) supplements contained all 6 nutrients they considered essential for a healthy pregnancy.
  • Only 1 supplement contained all 6 nutrients at the appropriate doses, and it wasn’t even labeled as a prenatal supplement.

The authors concluded, “Almost no US dietary supplements provide key nutrients in the doses needed for pregnant women. Affordable and convenient products that fill the gap between food-based intake and estimated requirements of pregnancy without inducing excess intake are needed to support pregnant women and their offspring.”

[Note: It sometime takes a while for supplement labels to be posted in the NIH Dietary Supplement Label Database. The authors acknowledged that this study may not include supplements introduced or reformulated in the last quarter of 2022 or early 2023.]

If you are pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant, this should be a wake-up call.

70% of pregnant women in this country take prenatal supplements, usually based on recommendations by their health care provider. They assume the prenatal supplements meet their needs and the needs of their unborn baby.

Yet three studies evaluating the adequacy of prenatal supplements have been published in the past few months. And all three studies concluded that the vast majority of prenatal supplements on the market are woefully inadequate.

You may be wondering, “Is it three strikes, and you are out?” Are there no decent prenatal supplements on the market?  The answer to those questions is, “No. There are good prenatal supplements on the market.”

You may be wondering how I can say that in the face of such overwhelming negative data. That’s because while all 3 studies were very good studies, they each had “blind spots”:

For more details on this study and 7 tips on finding the best prenatal supplement for you, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. 

____________________________________________________________________________

My posts and “Health Tips From the Professor” articles carefully avoid claims about any brand of supplement or manufacturer of supplements. However, I am often asked by representatives of supplement companies if they can share them with their customers.

My answer is, “Yes, as long as you share only the article without any additions or alterations. In particular, you should avoid adding any mention of your company or your company’s products. If you were to do that, you could be making what the FTC and FDA consider a “misleading health claim” that could result in legal action against you and the company you represent.

For more detail about FTC regulations for health claims, see this link.

https://www.ftc.gov/business-guidance/resources/health-products-compliance-guidance

 

 

Omega-3s Reduce Preterm Births

Do Omega-3s Make For A Healthy Pregnancy?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney 

omega-3s during pregnancy is healthyThe role of omega-3s on a healthy pregnancy has been in the news for some time. Claims have been made that omega-3s reduce preterm births, postnatal depression, and improve cognition, IQ, vision, mental focus, language, and behavior in the newborn as they grow.

The problem is that almost all these claims have been called into question by other studies. If you are pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant, you don’t know what to believe.

  • Should you eat more fish?
  • Should you take omega-3 supplements?
  • Or should you just ignore the claims about omega-3s and a healthy pregnancy?

These are not trivial questions. Let’s consider preterm births as an example. The medical profession has made enormous advances in keeping premature babies alive. However, premature babies are still at higher risk of several health conditions including:

  • Visual impairment.
  • Developmental Delay.
  • Learning difficulties.

Plus, it is expensive to keep premature babies alive. One recent study estimated that increasing omega-3 intake during pregnancy could reduce health care costs by around $6 billion in the United Stated alone.

Unfortunately, it’s not just omega-3s and pregnancy. The same is true for almost all nutritional health claims. One day a study comes out claiming that nutrient “X” cures some disease or has some miraculous benefit. The bloggers and news media hype that study. Suddenly you see that health claim everywhere. It becomes so omnipresent that you are tempted to believe it must be true.

But wait. A few months later another study comes to opposite conclusion. Now the media is telling you that health claim is false. The months come and go, and new studies keep coming out. Some support the health claim. Others refute it.

Pretty soon the nutrition headlines just become “noise”. You don’t know what to believe. If you want the truth, “Who ya gonna call?”

Who Ya Gonna Call?

ghost bustersIt’s not Ghostbusters. It not Dr. Strangelove’s health blog. It’s a group called the Cochrane Collaboration.

The Cochrane Collaboration consists of 30,000 volunteer scientific experts from across the globe whose sole mission is to analyze the scientific literature and publish reviews of health claims so that health professionals, patients, and policy makers can make evidence-based choices about health interventions.

The Cochrane Collaboration reviews all the relevant studies on a topic, exclude those that are biased or weak, and make their recommendations based on only the strongest studies. Their reviews are considered the gold standard of evidence-based medicine.

If you are of a certain age, you may remember that TV commercial “When EF Hutton talks, people listen.” It is the same with the Cochrane Collaboration. When they talk, health professionals listen.

This week we will examine the Cochrane Collaboration’s review titled “Omega-3 Fatty Acid Addition During Pregnancy”.

How Was The Study Done?

Clinical StudyFor this analysis the Cochrane Collaboration reviewed 70 randomized controlled trials which compared the effect of added omega-3s on pregnancy outcomes with either a placebo or a diet no added omega-3s. These trials included almost 19,927 pregnant women.

In one sense, Cochrane reviews are what is called a “meta-analysis”, in which data from numerous studies are grouped together so that a statistically significant conclusion can be reached. However, Cochrane Collaboration reviews differ from most meta-analyses found in the scientific literature in a very significant way.

Many published meta-analyses simply report “statistically significant” conclusions. However, statistics can be misleading. As Mark Twain said: “There are lies. There are damn lies. And then there are statistics”.

The problem is that the authors of most meta-analyses group studies together without considering the quality of studies included in their analysis. This creates a “Garbage In – Garbage Out” effect. If the quality of individual studies is low, the quality of the meta-analysis will also be low. Simply put, the conclusions from some published meta-analyses are not worth the paper they are written on.

The Cochrane Collaboration also reports statistically significant conclusions from their meta-analyses. However, they also carefully consider the quality of each individual study in their analysis. They look at possible sources of bias. They look at the design and size of the studies. Finally, they ask whether the conclusions are consistent from one study to the next. They clearly define the quality of evidence that backs up each of their conclusions as follows:

  • High-quality evidence. Further research is unlikely to change their conclusion. This is generally reserved for conclusions backed by multiple high-quality studies that have all come to the same conclusion. These are the recommendations that are most often adopted into medical practice.
  • Moderate-quality evidence. This conclusion is likely to be true, but further research could have an impact on it.
  • Low-quality evidence. Further research is needed and could alter the conclusion. They are not judging whether the conclusion is true or false. They are simply saying more research is needed to reach a definite conclusion.

Omega-3s Reduce Preterm Births

clinically provenHere are the conclusions that the Cochrane Collaboration said were supported by high-quality evidence:

  • Omega-3s reduce the risk of preterm births.
  • Omega-3s reduce the risk of low-birth-weight infants.

The authors concluded: “Omega-3 supplementation during pregnancy is an effective strategy for reducing the risk of preterm birth…More studies comparing omega-3s and placebo are not needed at this point.”

In other words, they are saying this conclusion is definite. Omega-3 supplementation should become part of the standard of medical care for pregnant women.

However, they did say that further studies were needed “…to establish if, and how, outcomes vary by different types of omega-3s, timing [stage of pregnancy], doses [of omega-3s], or by characteristics of women.”

That’s because these variables were not analyzed in the Cochrane study. Their review and meta-analysis included clinical trials:

  • Of women at low, moderate, and high risk of poor pregnancy outcomes.
  • With DHA alone, with EPA alone, and with a mixture of both.
  • Omega-3 doses that were low (˂ 500 mg/day), moderate (500-1,000 mg/day), and high (> 1,000 mg/day).

Do Omega-3s Make For A Healthy Pregnancy?

What about the effect of omega-3s on other pregnancy outcomes?

The conclusions the Cochrane Collaboration said were supported by moderate quality evidence included reductions in:

  • Perinatal death.
  • Admissions to the neonatal intensive care unit.

There was not enough high or moderate quality data to determine the effect of omega-3s on other pregnancy outcomes such as postnatal depression. More research is still needed in those areas. However, if you do receive any of these benefits from omega-3 supplementation, you can just consider them as side benefits.

What Does This Report Mean For You?

pregnant women taking omega-31) The proven effect of omega-3 supplementation on preterm births is significant because preterm births increase the risk of:

  • Visual impairment.
  • Developmental Delay.
  • Learning difficulties.

2) The likely effect of omega-3s on admission to neonatal intensive care units is significant because those units are very expensive.

3) The Cochrane study did not determine whether omega-3 supplementation was equally important for women at low, moderate, and high likelihood of poor pregnancy outcomes.

  • Therefore, omega-3 supplementation should be considered for all pregnant women.

4) The Cochrane study did not determine whether omega-3 supplementation was equally important during the first, second, or third trimester.

  • Therefore, omega-3 supplementation should be considered by all women of childbearing age who might become pregnant and throughout pregnancy.

5) The Cochrane study did not determine whether DHA, EPA, or a mixture of the two was most effective.

  • Therefore, your omega-3 supplement should probably contain both DHA and EPA. A group of experts recently recommended  that adults consume at least 650 mg/day of omega-3s with ≥ 220 mg of that coming from DHA and ≥ 220 mg/day coming from EPA.
  • Since most pregnant women in this country consume around 89 mg/day of DHA + EPA, omega-3 supplementation is warranted.

The Bottom Line 

The effect of omega-3s on pregnancy outcomes have been confusing. Some studies conclude that omega-3s are important for a healthy pregnancy. Other studies suggest they are ineffective. What are you to believe?

Fortunately, a group called the Cochrane Collaboration recently conducted a comprehensive review of this topic. This is significant because Cochrane Reviews are internationally recognized as the highest standard in evidence-based health care. They influence the treatment protocols recommended by the medical community.

This Cochrane Review concluded that omega-3 supplementation during pregnancy:

  • Reduces preterm births and low birth weight infants.
  • Likely reduces perinatal death and admissions to the neonatal intensive care unit.

The authors of the review said: “Omega-3 supplementation during pregnancy is an effective strategy for reducing the risk of preterm birth…More studies comparing omega-3s and placebo are not needed at this point.”

In other words, they are saying this conclusion is definite. Omega-3 supplementation should become part of the standard of medical care for pregnant women.

For more details on the study and what it means for you, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Omega-3s During Pregnancy Are Healthy

It’s Definite: Omega-3s Reduce Preterm Births

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

omega-3s during pregnancy is healthyThe role of omega-3s on a healthy pregnancy has been in the news for some time. Claims have been made that omega-3s reduce preterm births, postnatal depression, and improve cognition, IQ, vision, mental focus, language and behavior in the newborn as they grow.

The problem is that almost all these claims have been called into question by other studies. If you are pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant, you don’t know what to believe.

  • Should you eat more fish?
  • Should you take omega-3 supplements?
  • Or should you just ignore the claims about omega-3s and a healthy pregnancy?

Omega-3s during pregnancy is healthy or not? These are not trivial questions. Let’s consider preterm births as an example. The medical profession has made enormous advances in keeping premature babies alive. However, premature babies are still at higher risk of several health conditions including:

  • Visual impairment.
  • Developmental Delay.
  • Learning difficulties.

Plus, it is expensive to keep premature babies alive. One recent study estimated that increasing omega-3 intake during pregnancy could reduce health care costs by around $6 billion in the United Stated alone.

Unfortunately, it’s not just omega-3s and pregnancy. The same is true for almost all nutritional health claims. One day a study comes out claiming that nutrient “X” cures some disease or has some miraculous benefit. The bloggers and news media hype that study. Suddenly you see that health claim everywhere. It becomes so omnipresent that you are tempted to believe it must be true.

But, wait. A few months later another study comes to an opposite conclusion. Now the media is telling you that health claim is false. The months come and go, and new studies keep coming out. Some support the health claim. Others refute it.

Pretty soon the nutrition headlines just become “noise.”  You don’t know what to believe. If you want the truth, “Who ya gonna call?”

 

Who Ya Gonna Call?

ghost bustersIt’s not Ghostbusters. It not Dr. Strangelove’s health blog. It’s a group called the Cochrane Collaboration.

The Cochrane Collaboration consists of 30,000 volunteer scientific experts from across the globe whose sole mission is to analyze the scientific literature and publish reviews of health claims so that health professionals, patients, and policy makers can make evidence-based choices about health interventions.

The Cochrane Collaboration reviews all the relevant studies on a topic, exclude those that are biased or weak, and make their recommendations based on only the strongest studies. Their reviews are considered the gold standard of evidence-based medicine.

If you are of a certain age, you may remember that TV commercial “When EF Hutton talks, people listen.” It is the same with the Cochrane Collaboration. When they talk, health professionals listen.

This week we will examine the Cochrane Collaboration’s review titled “Omega-3 Fatty Acid Addition During Pregnancy.”

 

How Was The Study Done?

omega-3s during pregnancy is healthy studyFor this analysis the Cochrane Collaboration reviewed 70 randomized controlled trials which compared the effect of added omega-3s on pregnancy outcomes with the effect of either a placebo or no omega-3s. These trials included almost 19,927 pregnant women.

In one sense, Cochrane reviews are what is called a “meta-analysis”, in which data from numerous studies are grouped together so that a statistically significant conclusion can be reached. However, Cochrane Collaboration reviews differ from most meta-analyses found in the scientific literature in a very significant way.

Many published meta-analyses simply report “statistically significant” conclusions. However, statistics can be misleading. As Mark Twain said: “There are lies. There are damn lies. And then there are statistics.”

The problem is that the authors of most meta-analyses group studies together without giving sufficient consideration to the quality of studies included in their analysis. This creates a “Garbage In – Garbage Out” effect. If the quality of individual studies is low, the quality of the meta-analysis will also be low. Simply put, the conclusions from some published meta-analyses are not worth the paper they are written on.

The Cochrane Collaboration also reports statistically significant conclusions from their meta-analyses. However, they also carefully consider the quality of each individual study in their analysis. They look at possible sources of bias. They look at the design and size of the studies. Finally, they ask whether the conclusions are consistent from one study to the next. They clearly define the quality of evidence that backs up each of their conclusions as follows:

  • High-quality evidence. Further research is unlikely to change their conclusion. This is generally reserved for conclusions backed by multiple high-quality studies that have all come to the same conclusion. These are the recommendations that are most often adopted into medical practice.
  • Moderate-quality evidence. This conclusion is likely to be true, but further research could have an impact on it.
  • Low-quality evidence. Further research is needed and could alter the conclusion. They are not judging whether the conclusion is true or false. They are simply saying more research is needed to reach a definite conclusion.

 

It’s Definite: Omega-3s During Pregnancy is Healthy

 

clinically provenHere are the conclusions that the Cochrane Collaboration said were supported by high-quality evidence:

  • Omega-3s reduce the risk of preterm births.
  • Omega-3s reduce the risk of low birth weight infants.

The authors concluded: “Omega-3 supplementation during pregnancy is an effective strategy for reducing the risk of preterm birth…More studies comparing [the effect of] omega-3s and placebo [on preterm births] are not needed at this point.”

In other words, they are saying this conclusion is definite. Omega-3 supplementation should become part of the standard of medical care for pregnant women.

However, they did say that further studies were needed “…to establish if, and how, outcomes vary by different types of omega-3s, timing [stage of pregnancy], doses [of omega-3s], or by characteristics of women.”

That’s because these variables were not analyzed in this study. The study included clinical trials:

  • Of women at low, moderate, and high risk of poor pregnancy outcomes.
  • With DHA alone, with EPA alone, and with a mixture of both.
  • Omega-3 doses that were low (˂ 500 mg/day), moderate (500-1,000 mg/day), and high (> 1,000 mg/day).

 

Do Omega-3s Make For A Healthy Pregnancy?

 

What about the effect of omega-3s on other pregnancy outcomes?

The conclusions the Cochrane Collaboration said were supported by moderate quality evidence included reductions in:

  • Perinatal death.
  • Admissions to the neonatal intensive care unit.

There was not enough high or moderate quality data to determine the effect of omega-3s on other pregnancy outcomes such as postnatal depression. More research is still needed in those areas. However, if they do occur, you can just consider them as side benefits.

 

What Does This Report Mean For You?

omega-3 pregnancyThe proven effect of omega-3 supplementation on preterm births is significant because preterm births increase the risk of:

  • Visual impairment.
  • Developmental Delay.
  • Learning difficulties.

The likely effect of omega-3s on admission to neonatal intensive care units is significant because those units are very expensive.

This study did not determine whether omega-3 supplementation was equally important for women at low, moderate, and high likelihood of poor pregnancy outcomes.

  • Therefore, omega-3 supplementation should be considered for all pregnant women.

This study did not determine whether omega-3 supplementation was equally important during the first, second, or third trimester.

  • Therefore, omega-3 supplementation should be considered by all women of childbearing age who might become pregnant.

This study did not determine whether DHA, EPA, or a mixture of the two was most effective.

This study did not determine the minimum effective dose of omega-3s to reduce preterm births.

  • Most health organizations recommend that pregnant women consume between 200-500 mg/day of omega-3s.
  • For example, one group of experts recently recommended pregnant women consume at least 300 mg/day of DHA and 220 mg/day of EPA.
  • The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology recommends supplementation with 200 mg/day of DHA. However, that recommendation assumes that the increase will come from fish and was influenced by concerns that omega-3-rich fish are highly contaminated with heavy metals and PCBs.
  • Since most pregnant women in this country consume around 89 mg/day of DHA + EPA, some degree of omega-3 supplementation in the 200-500 mg/day range is warranted.

 

The Bottom Line

 

The effect of omega-3s on pregnancy outcomes have been confusing. Some studies conclude that omega-3s during pregnancy is healthy. Other studies suggest they are ineffective. What are you to believe?

Fortunately, a group called the Cochrane Collaboration recently conducted a comprehensive review of this topic. This is significant because Cochrane Reviews are internationally recognized as the highest standard in evidence-based health care. They influence the treatment protocols recommended by the medical community.

This Cochrane Review concluded that omega-3 supplementation during pregnancy:

  • Reduces preterm births and low birth weight infants.
  • Likely reduces perinatal death and admissions to the neonatal intensive care unit.

The authors of the review said: “Omega-3 supplementation during pregnancy is an effective strategy for reducing the risk of preterm birth…More studies comparing [the effect of] omega-3s and placebo [on preterm births] are not needed at this point.”

In other words, they are saying this conclusion is definite. Omega-3 supplementation should become part of the standard of medical care for pregnant women.

This study did not determine the minimum effective dose of omega-3s to reduce preterm births.

  • Most health organizations recommend that pregnant women consume between 200-500 mg/day of omega-3s.
  • Since most pregnant women in this country consume around 89 mg/day of DHA + EPA, some degree of omega-3 supplementation is warranted.

For more details on the study and what it means for you, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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