Note from Joy: As a parent, you want the best for your child, which is why supplementation can be a convenient way to get your child to boost their consumption of omega-3 fatty acids. After all, most kids are not consuming fish and research shows that 84% of children eat less than one serving of fish per week. Good fats are especially important for a child's developing brain, especially when you consider the rapid development of their brain in childhood.
Omega-3 fatty acids are described as “essential” nutrients because our bodies do not produce them the way it produces a nutrient like vitamin D (which is produced with sun exposure).
There are three main omega-3 fatty acids:
· Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
· Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
· Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
ALA is converted to EPA and DHA, but only in very small amounts (technically, they are “conditionally essential” nutrients), about 6% for EPA and 3.8% for DHA, an already small percentage that may be reduced a further 40% to 50% depending on dietary intake of other types of fats (specifically, omega-6 fatty acids, which many women may use as supplements for menstrual health concerns in the form of evening primrose oil).
The main health benefits attributed to omega-3 fatty acid consumption appear to be associated with EPA and DHA. Practically, this suggests, if the goal is improved health, one’s focus should be to increase EPA and DHA consumption specifically.
Health Benefits of EPA and DHA for Children and Young Adults
EPA and DHA have been widely researched, but most of the research centers on adult health concerns, such as cancer prevention, heart health and prevention of age-related cognitive conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
However, EPA and DHA intake offer plenty of benefits for children and teens!
Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
ADHD is the area most often discussed when omega-3 fatty acids with respect to children’s health are the topic of conversation.
There is certainly some research that supports the use of fish oil to reduce symptoms of ADHD in children, but more recent research reviews of research conclude that the fish oil in isolation, reduces the symptoms of ADHD in children very little.
Importantly, this is not to say they may not be included in a treatment plan for ADHD, only that, if the entire plan is “buy fish oil and start taking it”, the prognosis is not promising.
Anxiety and Depression
Evidence exists that fish oil supplementation reduced depression symptoms in 6 to 12 year-olds. Importantly, more nuanced research suggests that it is EPA more specifically that will result in positive effects in the treatment of depression (in humans, not specifically children).
Research on children has demonstrated that consuming fish oil for 10 months reduced asthma symptoms than those who did not.
Chronic Illness Prevention
Importantly, many of the benefits of increasing omega-3 intake for children are not evident in the short-term. Much research focuses on “adult” health, but children will in time become adults.
The value of omega-3 fatty acids in the prevention of diabetes, heart disease, cancer and cognitive illness are all “children’s health” concerns. These are illnesses that don’t strike, they develop. Their prevention begins long before the first symptoms become apparent. It makes sense for fish oil to be a part of a health strategy throughout the life cycle.
How do I know if my child (or I) need to increase our omega-3 fatty acids intake?
You should, and so should they.
As a general guideline, “oily fish”
should be eaten twice weekly.
To get more specific, for purposes of human health, omega-3 and the aforementioned omega-6 fatty acids have historically been consumed in a ratio of 1:1.
An omega-6:omega-3 ratio of 4:1 is associated with a 70% decrease in total deaths in heart disease, a ratio of 2.5:1 reduced cancer growth in patients with colon cancer, and lower ratios, in general, are associated with a decreased risk of breast cancer.
Western diets are rich in foods having omega-6 fatty acids and deficient in foods having omega-3 fatty acids. As a consequence, Western diets have an omega-6: omega-3 ratio of as high as 16.7:1 (16.7 times higher than we evolved eating).
Dietary Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
When talking about health and omega-3 fatty acids, we're really discussing an increased intake of EPA and DHA. The only meaningful sources of EPA and DHA in the human diet are fish.
The that have the highest amounts of EPA and DHA per serving tend to be wild-caught herring, salmon and mackerel.
Per 85 g (3 ounces) serving:
· Wild herring contains more than 1500 mg EPA and DHA
· Wild king salmon contains more than 1500 mg EPA and DHA
· Farmed Atlantic salmon contains more than 1500 mg EPA and DHA
· Wild Pacific and Jack mackerel contains more than 1500 mg EPA and DHA
1500 mg is the amount of combined EPA and DHA available in a higher concentration fish oil nutritional supplement.
Vegetarians and vegans should use nutritional supplementation to increase their EPA and DHA intake.
Nutritional Supplementation with Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Fish oil is the obvious nutritional supplement for increasing EPA and DHA intake.
For vegetarians and vegans, many will recommend flaxseed oil because it is rich in ALA which is converted to EPA and DHA, but remember the rate of conversion is very low. Algae oil is a more EPA- and DHA-rich, vegan source of these nutrients.
Bringing it home!
Increasing omega-3 fatty acid intake is a sensible dietary precaution for children (but also adults), as a therapeutic intervention for anxiety, depression, asthma and, possibly, ADHD, but more importantly as a means of maintaining a balance of dietary oils and preventing a wide range of adult illnesses down the road.
The key omega-3 fatty acids to
focus on are EPA and DHA.
Herring, salmon and mackerel are the richest dietary sources of EPA and DHA and should be consumed at least twice weekly.
Fish oil supplements are the most common and economical nutritional supplemental source of these oils for most; algae oil is a concentrated vegetarian and vegan option.