Childhood is one of the most critical times where nutrition really matters. The young, developing brain is particularly dependent on a good diet to grow and thrive.
Discover how one key nutrient - Omega-3 - can influence everything from your children’s mood to academic performance!
What Is Omega-3?
In the most basic sense, Omega-3 is a type of fatty acid. Fatty acids are small molecular component found in all fats, however their type and structure differs between foods.
Omega-3 is a special type of fatty acid found primarily in fish and certain seeds. It has been associated with a number of potent health benefits - including supporting the health of your child’s brain!
More importantly, Omega-3 is considered to be an essential fatty acid. This means that the body cannot make it alone - we can only get it from the food that we eat and it is therefore essential to our diet.
There are 3 main types of Omega-3’s found in the human diet:
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA),
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
- and Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
ALA is the main type that is found in plant sources, whereas EPA and DHA are found in fish and animal foods. Plant sources of Omega-3 (ALA) offers a very low conversion rate to the biologically active forms of EPA and DHA as our bodies find it difficult to convert them and will only do so if our intake of EPA and DHA are too low - in fact, it may only convert as little as one percent of the amount you eat!
Why Are Omega-3s Important For The Brain?
Omega-3s are essential for the brain to grow properly. This is particularly relevant during gestation and childhood, when the brain is undergoing periods of critical development.
In particular, a type of fatty acid known as DHA is essential for brain development. DHA helps neurons to grow and form strong connections in the brain.
Omega-3s are also anti-inflammatory, which offer numerous health benefits throughout the body, helping support your cardiovascular, endocrine and digestive systems.
What Does The Research Say About Omega-3s And Children’s Brains?
Research suggests that omega-3s may help with many areas of academic performance at school.
Firstly, some studies have shown that fish oil supplements can improve children’s literacy levels. In one study, children showed significant gains in their reading and vocabulary after just three months of fish oil supplementation.
Omega-3 Supplementation Can Improve Literacy Skills
In another study that covered a four-month period of taking 600mg of omega-3 daily, children in the lowest 20% percentile for reading ability demonstrated improved literacy skills. This improvement was not noted in children who already met expected reading levels for their age, despite also taking supplementation.
Omega-3s May Help Children With ADHD
Other research also offers a promising hope for omega-3s to help children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Some studies have shown that children with ADHD have lower levels of key fatty acids.
One of the largest, most cited studies found that ADHD levels dropped from 32% of children to 18% with fish oil supplementation.
Furthermore, omega-3s may also improve emotional processing and social skills among children with ADHD.
Even though I believe that breastmilk is the healthiest option for babies and strongly support breastfeeding, one study involving DHA fortification in infant formulas does present some insight into the Omega-3 story. Children (18 months old) who consumed formulas containing DHA during the first four months of life scored better in memory and problem-solving tests than those who were not fed formulas with DHA.
(Please note: Omega-3’s naturally come through in mother’s breastmilk, providing that a mother is getting enough in her diet.)
However, some experts criticize the research quality of these studies. Much of the research has been funded by supplement companies, only observe short-term effects of omega-3s and does not examine possible long-term side-effects.
Michael Crawford, an expert in brain development and DHA from the Imperial College London, also points out that omega-3s may be a more important issue for brain development in the womb. After that, Dr Crawford believes that the potential for improving IQ is unlikely:
"Once they [children] are born, the basic architecture of their brain is already defined. You're not going to make an Einstein out of somebody who doesn't have the potential at birth.”
As with a lot of areas in nutrition, it seems that more research is required before all controversy can be ruled out.
What Are Some Signs That You May Not Be Getting Enough Omega-3?
The Western diet typically contains an imbalance of too many Omega-6 fats (from vegetable/plant oils) and not enough Omega-3s.
In fact, according to Dr David Leopold from the integrative medical education at the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine in San Diego:
“Pretty much everybody’s diet is deficient in omega-3s...I think that’s why adding them back in seems to have so many health benefits. We’re just balancing out what’s normally there.”
The symptoms of a suboptimal Omega-3 intake are wide and varied, however possible signs include:
- Difficulty with concentration,
- Memory issues,
- Low mood,
- Allergies, asthma and hay fever,
- Sudden change in mood,
- and disordered sleep patterns.
What Foods Contain The Highest Levels Of Omega-3 Fats?
Oily fish and krill are nature’s richest sources of Omega-3s. However, some nuts and seeds also offer Omega-3. Top food sources include:
- Tuna (wild caught)
- Smaller amounts are also present in pasture-raised, organic red meat
How Much Omega-3s Do You Need?
While the evidence isn’t absolutely conclusive, there is promising research to suggest that omega-3s may help with children’s academic performance and concentration - particularly if they experience ADHD or demonstrate a below-average reading level.
It is always advisable to check with a trusted integrative medical practitioner before trialling supplementation with your child. And in a healthy child who is free from disease and eats a nutritious, varied diet, it is recommended to get Omega-3 fats from food before supplementation.
As an alternative starting point, you may wish to include some regular servings of wild, sustainably caught oily fish into your child’s diet. You could also add a little flaxseed/linseed oil into smoothies, raw treats and nut butters.
Supplementing With Omega-3s
If you struggle to include these foods in your diet for whatever reason, whether you’re vegan or simply don’t have access to quality sources, then you can supplement with omega-3s instead. They are available in capsules or liquid form. Some of our preferred choices include:
- Flaxseed Oil (Vegan)
- Prenatal Vitamin
- Omega 3 Fish Oil
- Vegan Omega 3 Capsules
- Prenatal Omega 3 Gel Capsules
- Krill Oil
Regardless of how you take your omega-3s, it’s clear that they’re an incredibly important nutrient for health in both adults and children alike.