By Robin Stevenson
“This is the biggest nutritional deficiency in children today,” says Dr. William Sears, an associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of California and the author of The NDD (Nutritional Deficit Disorder) Book (Little, Brown). “The brain is 60 percent fat; 20 percent of that is Omega-3s. So it’s a logical conclusion that the number-one fat for growing minds is Omega-3s,” he says.
In addition to supporting normal development of the brain, eyes and nerves, fatty acids like Omega-3s help build cells that regulate blood pressure and lower cholesterol and may help reduce the inflammation associated with asthma and eczema.
ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) must be obtained from food since the body does not produce it. It’s found in plant sources such as walnuts, flaxseeds, pecans, spinach, soy products and some vegetable oils (canola). EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are found in fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, sardines, halibut and haddock.
“There are over 12,000 medical journal articles on the health benefits of Omega-3s,” states Dr. Sears. One of the most cited is the 2005 Oxford-Durham study in which researchers linked increased amounts of Omega-3 in the diets of children with developmental coordination disorder to better performance in reading and spelling, along with fewer behavioural problems over three months.
“Studies on the benefits of giving more Omega-3s have been mixed; some have found benefits, others have not,” says Dr. Sheila Innis, director of the Nutrition and Metabolism Research Program at the Child and Family Research Institute in Vancouver. She does say that Omega-3s are necessary for everyone.
Cori Windsor of Sherwood Park, Alta., has noticed the difference adding Omega-3s to her daughter’s diet has made. At seven, Madeline, now nine, was diagnosed with severe anxiety, Tourette’s
Syndrome and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. After a year of testing drugs that made her daughter”zombie-like,” their neuropsychologist recommended high doses of Omega-3s. “Well, it was like flicking on a switch or flicking off a switch, depending which way you look at it,” says Windsor. “She used to have so many tics
that would cause her embarrassment, but now she only tics when she is stressed or when she has a cold. She is getting her confidence back and actually likes school this year. I don’t know the pathophysiology behind the change but it can’t be ignored.” In addition to supplements, Windsor feeds her daughter flax-enriched fruit shakes, Omega-3 eggs and soybeans.
According to a recent study of 41 children between the ages of four and eight by researchers at Ontario’s University of Guelph, only 22 percent of children surveyed were receiving the suggested amount of DHA and EPA. Health Canada has not established any recommendations for DHA and EPA. However, the Food and Nutrition Board in the U.S. recommends 0.9 grams of DHA and EPA a day for children ages four to eight.
Dr. Innis says the best way to ensure your child receives the essential fatty acids he needs is to feed him foods with naturally occurring Omega-3s with one or two meals of low-mercury fish (e.g., salmon, tilapia) per week. “Giving supplements or foods fortified with Omega-3s to children with poor dietary practices who
do not follow Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide is not likely to be helpful,” says Dr. Innis.
Dr. Sears puts it this way: “Change your children’s oils and you can change their lives.”
After learning more about Omega-3s, senior editor Robin Stevenson might have to disregard her distaste for fish and serve it to her family.