Growing Brains: The critical role of Omega-3 for children
Understand the critical role omega-3s play in your child’s cognitive development, practical ways to incorporate them into your child’s diet, and how to make sustainable choices when considering omega-3 supplements.
Cognitive development is the process by which your child learns to reason, solve problems and think abstractly. Incredibly, this mental prowess can be significantly impacted by what your child eats. The starring role in this narrative is played by omega-3 fatty acids.
What are omega-3 fatty acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of essential fats you and your child need to stay healthy. The human body can’t make them, so your child needs to get them from diet or supplementation.
What are the different types of omega-3 fatty acids and why are they important?
There are three main types of omega-3 essential fatty acids, EPA, DHA and ALA.
- EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid): This omega-3 fatty acid is vital for supporting heart health. It also plays a role in reducing inflammation, which can help maintain overall wellbeing.
- DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid): DHA is the omega-3 powerhouse when it comes to supporting brain health and function. It’s a key component of the brain and retina, making it particularly crucial for children whose brains and eyes are still developing.
EPA and DHA are found naturally in fatty fish and seafood and are widely available in supplements, including algae which is suitable for plant-based diets. These fats are ready for your child’s body to use, contributing to their heart, brain and eye health.
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA): ALA is found mainly in plant-based foods like flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts, making it a vegan-friendly source of omega-3. However, ALA needs to be converted by the liver into DHA and EPA and this process isn’t highly efficient in your child’s body, meaning it is unlikely to give them enough DHA to meet their needs.
While all types of omega-3 fatty acids are important, EPA and DHA, found mainly in fish and seafood, are the superstars when it comes to supporting brain health and development. And it’s here where the focus lies, especially when we consider the nutritional needs of children.
Why does your child need omega-3 fatty acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids are integral to many aspects of your child’s health from foetal development, brain function, heart health and immunity and may even influence your child’s behaviour. They are needed in every cell in your child’s body and are considered the building blocks of the brain.
Omega-3s are instrumental in supporting healthy brain function and promoting cognitive abilities like memory, focus and problem-solving.
By understanding this, you can ensure that your little ones are getting all the nutrients they need to grow and thrive.
How does omega-3 contribute to the brain development of your child?
Brain development begins in the foetus during pregnancy, making adequate consumption of omega-3 fatty acids vitally important throughout your pregnancy and particularly in your last trimester. There are many omega-3 supplements to support expectant mothers and their babies.
After birth, your child’s brain develops quickly, with the most important brain growth happening by the time they are six years old. This emphasises the importance of a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids from an early age.
Imagine your child’s brain as a bustling city. Its residents, the neurons, communicate with each other to control everything your child does – from moving their little fingers to learning a new word. Now, these neuron ‘residents’ require a constant supply of nutrients, especially omega-3 fatty acids, to keep communication flowing smoothly.
Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA, play a crucial role in your child’s brain development. This is because the brain is nearly 60% fat, and DHA makes up about 15-20% of the brain’s fatty content. So, you can think of DHA as the building blocks helping to construct your child’s ‘neuron city’.
The EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) approves the claim that DHA is needed to maintain normal brain function.
What specific benefits do omega-3 fatty acids have on your child’s cognitive development and function?
- Brain health and development: DHA is a major structural component of the brain and retina. Adequate intake during early childhood may support optimal brain and visual development.
- Cognitive skills: Omega-3 fatty acids may enhance cognitive skills like memory, attention and problem-solving abilities in children.
- Behaviour and social skills: Some studies suggest that Omega-3 supplementation may improve behaviour, reduce hyperactivity and improve attention span in children with behavioural disorders.
- Academic performance: Adequate Omega-3 intake could be associated with improved academic performance, possibly due to improved concentration and learning capabilities.
- Mood regulation: Omega-3 fatty acids may support healthy mood and emotional regulation. This can play a significant role in your child’s ability to learn. A stable emotional state is likely to mean your child is more receptive to learning, open to new information and better able to retain it effectively.
- May improve symptoms of ADHD: ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is a common condition affecting children’s ability to function. Children suffering from ADHD tend to exhibit hyperactivity, impulsiveness and difficulty focusing. Some research has shown that omega-3 supplements may help reduce ADHD symptoms in children.
- Promotes better sleep: Some studies have shown that children with lower levels of omega-3 are more likely to experience sleep problems. One study found that supplementing with DHA reduced sleep interruptions and resulted in almost an extra hour of sleep per night. Sleep is critical for the optimal performance of cognitive functions such as memory, concentration and problem-solving.
What are the wider health benefits of omega-3 for your child?
Omega-3 offers a wide range of health benefits for children making it vitally important that your child has a good supply of these healthy fats as they grow up.
- Supports the immune system: Omega-3 fatty acids can help build up your child’s immune system, helping them fend off common colds and flu.
- Supports eye health: DHA is found in high concentrations in the retina – the layer of tissue that lines the inside of the eye and receives the image formed by the lens. Children’s eyes need a constant supply of DHA to keep them healthy and working at their best. The EFSA approves the claim that DHA contributes to the maintenance of normal vision.
- May help relieve symptoms of asthma: Asthma is a chronic condition that affects many children causing chest pain, coughing, wheezing and breathing difficulties. One study found that taking a fish oil capsule containing 120mg of combined DHA and EPA daily helped decrease symptoms of asthma in children.
- Supports hair, skin and nail health: Healthy fats such as omega-3 help to keep skin nourished and hydrated, can encourage hair growth, promote strong, healthy hair and improve the health and appearance of nails.
What are the main dietary sources of omega-3?
Omega-3s are essential for your child even before birth. If you’re pregnant, it’s important to ensure you get enough fatty acids in your diet, especially in the second and third trimesters. Once your baby is born, they get omega-3 from breast milk and formula (often fortified with DHA).
As they grow, the best way to boost omega-3s for your child is through their diet, and when it comes to fuelling their cognitive development, nature has provided us with an array of nutrient-rich foods. Among these, the star players are undoubtedly the foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids:
- Oily fish: Salmon, mackerel and sardines are all swimming with beneficial omega-3. Try incorporating fish into your child’s meals at least twice weekly to optimise their intake.
- Seeds and nuts: Chia seeds and flaxseeds are both excellent plant-based sources of omega-3, as are walnuts. Sprinkle them onto porridge, add them to smoothies or incorporate them into baking recipes for a nutrient boost.
- Soybeans: Both whole soybeans and soybean oil are rich in omega-3. Soybeans can be a versatile addition to meals, and the oil can be used in cooking or salad dressings.
- Eggs: Some eggs are enriched with omega-3. Check the packaging for indications of omega-3 content. These can easily be included in a balanced breakfast to kickstart the day.
How can you incorporate these foods into your child’s diet in a fun and palatable way?
We all know that children can sometimes be fussy eaters. But don’t worry, here are some tips and creative, child-friendly ways to introduce these nutrient-packed foods into your little one’s diet:
- Start early: Encourage healthy eating from the beginning. Get your child to eat lean meats and good sources of protein like fish, eggs, beans and nuts. Provide healthy snacks, such as fruits and veggies every day, so they develop a healthy routine.
- Make it fun: Transform salmon into tasty fishcakes, or get creative and shape them into fun characters that will delight your child. Don’t make healthy eating feel like a chore and remember, there’s no need to eliminate treats completely!
- Sneak it in: Add ground flaxseeds or chia seeds to pancakes, muffins or smoothies. They won’t even notice the difference!
- Cook together: Encourage your child to help with the cooking. When children are involved in the process, they’re more likely to eat the end result. Baking walnut-laden banana bread or making homemade sushi with salmon can be fun activities to do together.
- Experiment with flavours: Introduce soybeans in the form of edamame, which can be lightly salted or flavoured to taste. They make for a great, nutrition-packed snack.
- Be a role model: Set a good example for your child when it comes to food and exercise so they can watch and copy your good habits.
Remember, the key is to start small and gradually increase the quantity of these foods in their diet. Over time, their palate will adjust to these new flavours. More importantly, you’ll be nurturing their cognitive development with every delicious bite.
When should you consider giving your child omega-3 supplements?
You may be asking yourself, “Should I give my child an omega-3 supplement?” The answer to this isn’t a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It depends on a few factors including your child’s overall diet, their health and even their taste preferences.
If your child isn’t consuming enough omega-3-rich foods – think fatty fish like salmon or plant-based sources such as flaxseeds – then a supplement might be a good option to consider. Additionally, children with certain health conditions or dietary restrictions may benefit from an omega-3 supplement. Always consult your child’s healthcare provider before introducing any new supplement to their routine.
What factors should you consider when choosing an omega-3 supplement for your child?
When you decide to introduce an omega-3 supplement into your child’s diet, several considerations should guide your choice.
- Source: Always look for products derived from high-quality, sustainable sources. Fish oil supplements should ideally come from small, short-lived fish such as anchovies or sardines, as these tend to have fewer contaminants. Algal oil is a good option for a plant-based source of omega-3.
- Purity: Make sure the supplement has been tested for contaminants like heavy metals and is free from unnecessary additives.
- Format: Omega-3 supplements come in various formats like capsules, liquids, and even chewable gummies. Choose one that’s age-appropriate and acceptable to your child.
- Brand: Consider brands that have a strong reputation for quality and transparency, such as Bare Biology, BioCare, Cleanmarine, Eskimo-3, Equazen, Lamberts and Natures Aid.
What are some trusted omega-3 supplements for children?
There are a whole host of omega-3 supplements from reputable brands in a range of formats and flavours that could be a good fit for your child.
- Bare Biology Action Heroes Fish Oil for Kids: This liquid supplement is high in EPA and DHA, the most beneficial types of omega-3. It’s made from wild, sustainable fish and has a mild, lemony flavour.
- Cleanmarine Krill Oil for Kids: Unlike fish oil, krill oil doesn’t leave a fishy aftertaste, which can be a big plus for picky eaters. It’s also sustainably sourced and free from heavy metals.
- Eskimo-3 Kids: Available in a tasty tutti-frutti flavour, Eskimo-3 for kids combines omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids. It’s also enriched with vitamins D and E.
- Lamberts Omega-3 for Kids: These chewable capsules are a great source of omega-3 and come in a fruity orange flavour that kids love.
- Natures Aid DHA Drops for Infants and Children: If you’re looking for a vegan option, these algal oil-based drops could be a good choice. They’re easy to add to food or drinks and suitable for children from 3 months to 5 years old.
Remember, it’s essential to introduce any new supplement slowly and monitor your child’s response. And as always, please consult a healthcare professional before starting your child on any new dietary supplement.
How much omega-3 does your child need?
In the UK there aren’t any specific guidelines for omega-3 fatty acids for children. However, the British Nutrition Foundation suggests that your child should eat at least two portions of fish a week, one of which should be oily fish (salmon, mackerel trout or sardines) for its omega-3 content.
If your child isn’t consuming enough omega-3 from their diet, and you’re considering a supplement, it’s important to consult with a healthcare professional to determine the appropriate dosage, taking into account your child’s age, overall diet and health status.
Are there sustainable sources of omega-3 for your child?
Sustainable living is about making choices that reduce your environmental footprint. Thankfully, you can adopt this ethos when sourcing omega-3 for your child.
Fish is a well-known source of omega-3, but unfortunately, overfishing and destructive fishing methods are causing harm to marine ecosystems. Aquaculture or farmed fish can be a more sustainable choice, but it’s essential to choose suppliers that follow responsible farming practices.
How can you make eco-friendly choices when sourcing omega-3 for your child’s diet?
Making eco-friendly choices when sourcing omega-3 doesn’t need to be complicated. Here are some key strategies:
- Opt for plant-based sources when possible: Flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts are excellent sources of omega-3 that align well with a sustainable lifestyle.
- Choose fish oil supplements from sustainable sources: When you’re shopping for supplements, look out for ASC (Aquaculture Stewardship Council), MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) or IFOS (International Fish Oil Standards) certification for reassurance of sustainable practices
- Consider algal oil supplements: Algae are the original source of omega-3 in fish, so algal oil supplements are a direct, sustainable and vegan-friendly option.
- Limit consumption of large, predatory fish: Fish species like tuna and swordfish are not only more likely to contain pollutants but also have a higher impact on the environment due to overfishing.
Remember, every choice you make can have a ripple effect. By sourcing omega-3 responsibly, you’re not just fostering your child’s cognitive development; you’re also helping to protect the planet for their future.
- Scientific Opinion on the substantiation of a health claim related to DHA and contribution to normal brain development pursuant to Article 14 of Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006
- Heilskov Rytter MJ, Andersen LB, Houmann T, Bilenberg N, Hvolby A, Mølgaard C, Michaelsen KF, Lauritzen L. Diet in the treatment of ADHD in children – a systematic review of the literature. Nord J Psychiatry. 2015 Jan;69(1):1-18. doi: 10.3109/08039488.2014.921933. Epub 2014 Jun 16. PMID: 24934907.
- Montgomery P, Burton JR, Sewell RP, Spreckelsen TF, Richardson AJ. Fatty acids and sleep in UK children: subjective and pilot objective sleep results from the DOLAB study–a randomized controlled trial. J Sleep Res. 2014 Aug;23(4):364-88. doi: 10.1111/jsr.12135. Epub 2014 Mar 8. PMID: 24605819; PMCID: PMC4263155.
- Nagakura T, Matsuda S, Shichijyo K, Sugimoto H, Hata K. Dietary supplementation with fish oil rich in omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in children with bronchial asthma. Eur Respir J. 2000 Nov;16(5):861-5. doi: 10.1183/09031936.00.16586100. PMID: 11153584.
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