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Fatty Acid Requirements for Women PDF Print E-mail
Written by Mary G. Enig, PhD   
Sunday, 31 December 2000 21:25

According to some researchers, "males are known to have much higher requirements for [essential fatty acids] EFAs than females."1 While this may be true in the case of young boys who are at risk for ADD/ADHD when they are lacking an appropriate balance of essential fatty acids (EFAs), the statement is not likely to be true for adults. In fact, much of the research literature (currently over 300 Medline entries) centers on concern about the EFA status and requirements for women, especially during their reproductive years. Recent research demonstrates that the quality of a woman's EFA status is critical for her successful reproduction and lactation. Reproduction that results in healthy, well-developed children is critical for society and all mankind, and the importance of well-fed infants needs no defending.

The EFA requirements for normal nourished women are 6 percent of total caloric intake during pregnancy, and even a mild deficiency in dietary EFAs may be a limiting factor in fetal growth processes in humans. Knowing this, the FAO/WHO Rome Report recommended an increase in the consumption of total fat in countries where malnutrition is endemic.2 But according to the World Health Organization reports over the past decade, there is still a dramatic deficiency of fat intakes (less than 10 percent of total caloric amounts) in the majority of developing countries,3 and it is impossible to get an adequate amount of EFAs during pregnancy with such a low fat intake.

During pregnancy, elongated EFAs play important biochemical and structural roles. They are precursors to the prostaglandins important for maintaining pregnancy and they serve as important structural elements in the cell membranes of both mother and fetus.4 Some researchers report that both the omega-6 and the omega-3 elongated EFAs decrease significantly during pregnancy and that pregnant women have difficulty coping with the high demand, especially for DHA, the elongated omega-3. One such study of Korean women showed that pregnancy reduces both omega-6 arachidonic acid and omega-3 docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in plasma triglycerides.5 Other researchers6 reported that serum levels of elongated omega-3s did not decrease during pregnancy but became lower afterwards. All the researchers, however, were in agreement that the EFA status following pregnancy was definitely compromised, and also was very slow to recover unless extra DHA supplementation was given.

The Dutch researcher Dr. Gerard Hornstra7 noted that the slow recovery from an inadequate DHA status was especially true for pregnancies with multiple fetuses but also true just from previous pregnancies with a single fetus. Hornstra further noted that the consumption of trans unsaturated fatty acids appeared to be associated with lower maternal and neonatal stores of elongated EFAs, and he recommended that during pregnancy women should minimize their consumption of trans fatty acids from "industrial hydrogenation of edible oils."7

The same critical requirements for EFAs are seen during lactation as during pregnancy. Elongated omega-3 fatty acids are necessary for optimal development of the infant's visual and nervous systems, and avoidance of the trans fatty acids by the lactating mother is known to be equally important in preventing decreased visual acuity in her infant.

Vegetarian women do not usually have adequate sources of elongated omega-3 EFAs since their diets do not contain fish. When there are high intakes of omega-6 fatty acids from vegetable oils and inadequate intake of saturates, as is typical in vegetarian diets, there is decreased conversion of plant omega-3 to the elongated EFAs. Lower levels of DHA have been reported in infants born to vegetarian mothers.8

Reliable sources of elongated omega-3 fatty acids include fatty fish such as ocean caught salmon and tuna, cod liver oil, egg yolks from properly fed hens and organ meats from grass-fed animals. Reliable sources of precursor omega-3 fatty acids include freshly ground flax seed and unprocessed flax seed oil, walnuts and butternuts, and cold-pressed, unrefined non-GMO canola and soybean oils.


  1. Colquhoun I, Bunday S, Med Hypotheses 1981 May;7(5):673-9.
  2. Crawford MA. Postgrad Med J 1980 Aug;56(658):557-62.
  3. Robillard PY, Christon R. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids 1993 Feb;48(2):139-42.
  4. Al MD, van Houwelingen AC, Hornstra G. Am J Clin Nutr 2000 Jan;71(1 Suppl):285S-91S.
  5. Min Y, Ghebremeskel K, Crawford MA, Nam JH, Kim A, Koo JN, Suzuki H. Int J Vitam Nutr Res 2000 Mar;70(2):70-5.
  6. Hornstra, G. Am J Clin Nutr 2000 May;71(5 Suppl):1262S-9S.
  7. Makrides M, Gibson RA. Am J Clin Nutr 2000 Jan;71(1 Suppl):307S-11S.
  8. Sanders TA. Am J Clin Nutr 1999 Sep;70(3 Suppl):555S-559S.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2000.

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Comments (1)Add Comment
Essential Fatty Acids
written by Andrew Mudd, Oct 22 2011
Dear Dr. Enig:
The Fall 2011 edition of Wise Traditions had a great article on protein which included detailed comparisons of essential amino acid content of various foods. Has anything of this sort been pubished doing the same thing for essential fatty acids? found the article extremely helpful and practical.Thank you. Andrew Fort Worth

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