Scientific studies have long proved the benefits of omega-3 on people, especially on children. In a nutshell, omega-3 (ω-3 or n-3) is essential fats that the body can’t make from scratch but must get from food. It is an integral part of cell membranes throughout the body and affect the function of the cell receptor, providing the starting point for making hormones that regulate blood clotting, contraction and relaxation of artery walls, and inflammation (Harvard School of Public Health).
Three major ω3-PUFAs are α-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). DHA & EPA are long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC (n-3) PUFA). LC (n-3) PUFAs are structural components of neurons in the brain and eye and have anti-inflammatory and immunomodulatory properties (Bernstein et al).
Omega-3 Benefits for Children
Numerous studies and researches across the globe have proved the beneficial effects ω-3 has on children in different aspects of health.
Some key ideas are summarised in González & Báez’s research:
- The consumption of n-3 LCPUFA could have cognitive, as well as cardiovascular, beneficial effects.
- Increased EPA and total n-3 LCPUFA levels were associated with decreased anxiety/shyness so the supplementation with n-3 LCPUFA was associated with improvements in literacy and behavior of children with ADHD.
- Those infants fed with the n-3 LCPUFA enriched baby food have shown more mature visual-evoked potential acuity.
On the other hand, lacking sufficient omega-3 will affect the kids negatively. Particularly, several observational studies in children have identified deficiencies and imbalances of LCPUFAs are positively correlated with impairments in cognitive and behavioral performance of the child (Bernstein et al).
Researches & Experiments
Similar results from other studies have supported the mentioned findings. From a sample of nearly 500 schoolchildren, researchers found that levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the blood significantly predicted a child’s behaviour and ability to learn. Higher levels of omega-3 in the blood, and DHA in particular, were associated with better reading and memory, as well as with fewer behaviour problems as rated by parents and teachers (University of Oxford). Likewise, Richardson et al. found in a randomized trial, supplementation with n-3 LCPUFA (derived from algae) improved reading skills in a cohort of 74 healthy children 7 to 9 years of age from the UK whose baseline reading performance was in the lowest quintile.
Three more relevant studies are mentioned in Bernstein’s research. A Cochrane systematic review analyzed data from 8 randomized controlled trials of pre- and postnatal fish oil supplementation for effects on childhood allergies, including food allergy, eczema, allergic rhinitis, and/or asthma (or wheeze), revealed that among children born to women who consumed fish oil supplements, immunoglobulin E (IgE)-mediated food allergy was less likely. Meanwhile, in a study of 29 Japanese children with prolonged hospitalization for severe asthma, fish oil supplementation over 10 months reduced sensitivity to acetylcholine and induced bronchospasm as well as asthmatic symptoms based on a standardized asthma severity scale. A randomized controlled crossover trial of 409 Aboriginal Australian children aged 6 to 12 years found that fish oil supplement administered over 40 weeks resulted in more advanced drawings in the Draw-A-Person test (a global measure of cognitive maturity and intellectual ability) compared with administration of a placebo containing palm oil.
Overall, n-3 LCPUFA have a key role in children’s growth and development, with special implications in:
- the central nervous system, showing improvements in different parameters of neurologic development, cognitive function, and behavioral and mental health;
- visual development, resulting in a better visual acuity;
- cardiovascular health, improving blood pressure; and
- the immune system, protecting the child against allergies in early childhood.
Current Situation: Omega-3 Deficiency
Despite its huge benefits, it seems like people, especially the youth, have not consumed enough ω3.
In Canada, according to Madden, Garrioch, & Holub, based on the Dietary Reference Intakes from the Institute of Medicine, 61% of the children met the adequate intake for ALA while only 22% met the suggested adequate intake for DHA+EPA. These intakes were also compared with the recent Australia/New Zealand recommendations for children, where only 51 % met the recommended intake for EPA+DPA+DHA. The sample of the research is 41 children within the age range of 4-8 years old in Central Canada. These results demonstrate a moderate shortfall in ALA intake in Canadian children and a nutrient gap for the LC (n-3) PUFA, including DHA, when comparing intakes for this population to suggested and recommended intakes.
Meanwhile, in the US, a significant number of American adults are not meeting recommendations for omega-3 fatty acid intake, leading to negative consequences associated with cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk (Papanikolaou, Brooks, Reider, & Fulgoni). While CVD is a leading cause of death in Americans, the disease rarely manifests in childhood or adolescence, however, the process begins in childhood. While LC (n-3) PUFA consumption benefits are not well established in children, as they are in adults, preliminary evidence suggests cardiovascular benefits in children, including improved endothelial function and blood pressure. Studies suggest that early exposure to dietary long-chain omega-3 plays a critical role in supporting heart health and reducing CVD risk in later life. In other words, CVD builds over a lifetime, with initiation and progression commencing during the pediatric years, strengthening the argument to focus on nutrition behavior and select food consumption during childhood.
Bernstein, A.S., Oken, E., & de Ferranti, S., AAP COUNCIL ON ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH, AAP COMMITTEE ON NUTRITION (2019). Fish, Shellfish, and Children’s Health: An Assessment of Benefits, Risks, and Sustainability. Pediatrics;143(6), 350-352, e20190999. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2019-0999
González, F. E., & Báez, R. V. (2017). IN TIME: IMPORTANCE OF OMEGA 3 IN CHILDREN’S NUTRITION. Revista paulista de pediatria : orgao oficial da Sociedade de Pediatria de Sao Paulo, 35(1), 3-4. doi:10.1590/1984-0462/;2017;35;1;00018
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. (n.d). Omega-3 Fatty Acids: An Essential Contribution. Retrieved from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/fats-and-cholesterol/types-of-fat/omega-3-fats/
Madden, S. M. M., Garrioch, C. F., & Holub, B. J. (2009). Direct Diet Quantification Indicates Low Intakes of (n-3) Fatty Acids in Children 4 to 8 Years Old. The Journal of Nutrition, 139(3), 528-532. https://doi.org/10.3945/jn.108.100628
Papanikolaou, Y., Brooks, J., Reider, C., & Fulgoni, V. L., 3rd (2014). U.S. adults are not meeting recommended levels for fish and omega-3 fatty acid intake: results of an analysis using observational data from NHANES 2003-2008. Nutrition journal, 13, 31. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-13-31
Richardson, A. J., Burton, J. R., Sewell, R. P., Spreckelsen, T. F., & Montgomery, P. (2012). Docosahexaenoic acid for reading, cognition and behavior in children aged 7-9 years: a randomized, controlled trial (the DOLAB Study). PloS one, 7(9), e43909. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0043909
University of Oxford. (2013, September 13). Low omega-3 could explain why some children struggle with reading. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/09/130913092414.htm