The aim of this study was to determine the effect of fatty acid intake and insulin dependent diabetes on the fatty acid composition of maternal erythrocytes, the placenta and cord. Fatty acid intake (from food frequency questionnaire) and the fatty acid composition of maternal erythrocytes, the placenta and cord from pregnant vegetarians (n = 4) and insulin dependent diabetics (n = 5) was compared with pregnant omnivores (n = 10). There was a significantly lower intake of n-6 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid (LCPUFA) (-75% P < 0.01) and n-3 LCPUFA (-92% P < 0.01) and increased ratio of n-6/n-3 LCPUFA in the vegetarians (103%; P < 0.001).
The concentrations of 22:4 n-6 (+28%; P < 0.05) and 22:5 n-3 (+40%; P < 0.05) were higher in vegetarian erythrocytes. Placental 18:2 n-6 (+26.9%; P < 0.05) 18:3 n-3 (+139%; P < 0.05) and 22:5 n-3 (+24%; P < 0.05) were increased while 20:5 n-3 (-36%; P < 0.05), 22:6 n-3 (-16%; P = 0.059), and the ratios of 20:4 n-6/18:2 n-6 (P < 0.01) and 22:6 n-3/18:3 n-3 were reduced. 22:6 n-6 (-49%; P < 0.05) and total n-3 LCPUFA (-11%; P < 0.01) were reduced in vegetarian cord. For the diabetic mothers, all of the n-6 LCPUFA and n-3 LCPUFA were reduced in the maternal erythrocytes; 22:4 n-6 (-42%; P < 0.05), 22:5 n-6 (-46%; P < 0.05) and 22:6 n-3 (-41%; P < 0.05). For the diabetic placenta and cord the general pattern of n-3 LCPUFA was the same as that in the vegetarians. In the vegetarian mothers, the PUFA profiles in the maternal erythrocytes, placenta and cord are consistent with an elevation in the rate of LCPUFA synthesis in order to make up the relative deficit in LCPUFA intake. However, it may be that the higher level of desaturase activity is not able to overcome the dietary deficit of 22-6 n-3 and 22:6 n-6. Despite the fact that the dietary LCPUFA intake in the pregnant diabetic was comparable with that in the pregnant 'normal' omnivore mothers, the pattern of PUFA in the tissues resembled that of the vegetarian mothers.