OBJECTIVE: To investigate whether the steady decline in the maternal essential fatty acids (EFA) status during pregnancy observed in Dutch pregnant women is a local or general phenomenon.

DESIGN: The EFA status was measured during uncomplicated, singleton pregnancy of healthy women from the Netherlands, Hungary, Finland, England and Ecuador. In addition, the EFA status of their neonates were measured at birth. Fatty acid profiles were analyzed in phospholipids isolated from maternal plasma and from umbilical plasma and cord vessel walls.

RESULTS: Considerable differences between these centers were observed in the maternal EFA levels and EFA status indexes. However, the change in the absolute as well as relative amounts of the EFAs followed a similar course in the five populations during pregnancy. The neonatal EFA profiles reflected the differences found in maternal plasma during pregnancy and shortly after delivery. Comparable correlations were found, particularly, between the neonatal and the maternal n-3 fatty acids in the participating groups.

CONCLUSIONS: It seems that the reduction in maternal EFA status during pregnancy is a general phenomenon, and is largely independent of differences in dietary habits and ethnic origin. Since the lowest values for certain maternal EFAs in a given country were significantly higher than the highest value of these EFAs throughout pregnancy in other countries, the functional implications of the pregnancy-associated reduction in the maternal EFA status for the fetal and neonatal development is not obvious and needs to be further elucidated.