As a parent, you’ve likely heard about the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids for kids. In particular, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and its less-talked about partner, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
You can find DHA in fortified food products, seafood, and offered up conveniently in fish oil. Parents often ask me if their child is getting enough. And if they aren’t, should they give them fish oil or some other supplement? And how much is too much?
With some expert help, we get to the bottom of your concerns.
DHA is a structural component of the brain and eye (retina). The brain grows at an incredible rate during pregnancy and in the first few years of life. Starting in the second half of pregnancy, baby’s brain begins to rapidly accumulate DHA up to about 4 grams by the time a child is 4 years old. No other fatty acids accumulate in the brain like DHA does.
“Children require omega-3 fatty acids the same way they require vitamins,” says Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD, author of The Ultimate Omega-3 Diet. She says DHA is needed for brain development the same way calcium is required for bone growth.
Benefits of omega 3s span from reduced risk of premature birth and postpartum depression in mom to improved cognitive function in infants. One review found a protective effect against developing obesity, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes throughout life. Omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body which is why they help protect against chronic disease.
What about DHA and the brain? Will it make older children smarter? Not necessarily, but research suggests it could help children pay attention in class. In one review, more than half of the studies showed benefits in at least one area of cognition and behavior in children.
One reason study findings vary is they often measure intake of omega-3s (such as fish oil supplements) versus blood levels. A 2013 study in Plus One found lower blood levels of DHA were linked to poorer reading, working memory and behavior problems. More studies are needed to confirm a relationship.
The body is unable to make omega-3 fatty acids from other dietary fats making them “essential” in the diet. Although plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids (alpha-linolenic acid – ALA) found in walnuts, flax and other plant foods can be converted to DHA and EPA, it’s an inefficient process. In other words, one cannot rely on plant sources of omega-3s to get DHA and EPA.
Fortified products are convenient but limited, as they don’t contain EPA or even sufficient DHA in most cases. In one Australian study, researchers replaced four core foods (bread, milk, eggs and yogurt) in the diets of children with omega-3 fortified products. While it increased intakes, the kids still fell short of targets. Fatty fish or fish oil will get children there much more quickly. The chart below shows you the typical amount found in food. For a full list of DHA in seafood, go here.
How much is enough?
The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends two servings of seafood per week totalling 8 ounces (4oz serving) to provide an average of 250mg of omega-3s (Kids eat the same but smaller portions). The FDA recommends pregnant women eat 2-3 portions weekly adding up to 8-12 ounces of fish per week. The 2015 Dietary Guideline Report reveals very few Americans meet these fish recommendations as you can see below.
“Kids need to eat fish at least twice a week to get the recommended amount of DHA,” Tribole says. “Parents can try fish tacos, tuna fish sandwiches or salmon patties with their kids.”
Should children who don’t eat fish regularly supplement with DHA/EPA? Tribole thinks so. Surveys reveal that most children get less than half of what they need, based on international guidelines. Because the amount of DHA in breast milk is dependent on mom’s dietary intake, it’s important for breastfeeding women to aim for the recommended amount (see below).
The Institute of Medicine does not have a safe upper limit for omega-3 fatty acids. That being said, if giving more than what is recommended, consult a doctor. Doses of 3g or more could increase the risk of bleeding. Some healthcare professionals may prescribe high doses of fish oil for certain conditions.
Tribole put together a supplement chart on her website listing quality products categorized by cost. Supplements, especially for kids, include Coromega, Nordic Naturals and Carlsons for Kids fish oil. Vegetarians can take algae-based supplements. The key is to look at the amount of DHA and EPA on the label and match it with the recommended serving.
Fats that compete with Omega-3s
Due to changes in the food supply, Tribole explains, we eat 10-20 times the omega-6 fatty acids that our ancestors ate. “I like to compare omega-6 fatty acids to sodium in the diet,” she says. “Both are essential nutrients but too much can take a toll on health.”
Because omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids compete for the same limited enzymes, too much omega-6 can crowd out omega-3s. And some experts believe too much omega-6 fatty acids in the body can increase one’s risk of inflammation, upping the risk of developing chronic diseases.
“To cut back I tell families to start with three items – margarine, salad dressing and spreads like mayonnaise,” she says. “These products are made with omega-6 vegetable oils such as soybean, cottonseed and corn oil.”
The chart below details the amount of omega-6 fats in different oils. To cut back on omega-6, choose salad dressing or mayonnaise made with olive oil or make your own. Many food products use soybean oil as the fat source so read labels.
There’s little doubt omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA are important for growing children. Listed below are the key takeaways.
- If pregnant or breastfeeding, aim for 2-3 portions of seafood per week or supplement with at least 200mg DHA daily. Choose infant formulas with DHA added.
- As children wean off breast milk or formula, aim to include fish twice weekly. For kids who don’t eat fish, consider or ask your pediatrician about supplementation.
- Aim to reduce your family’s intake of food items high in omega-6 fatty acids and look for ways to eat more plant and fish sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
Be sure to leave any questions you have in the comments.
For more about nutritional needs at every age and stage, check out Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters From High Chair to High School