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Children and Essential Fatty Acids

May 24th 2022

Children and Essential Fatty Acids

When we think about what fuels our health, we focus on vitamins, minerals and fiber and the foods plus supplements that help us meet recommended daily amounts. Yet, particularly when it comes to children's health, we tend to bypass essential fatty acids.

In writing recently about our newly formulated Kids Mega Multi, we said we believed all children should be on a good multi and also a source of essential fatty acids (EFAs).

Both adults and children are apt to be low in EFAs, especially two EFAs commonly found in seafood, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which are crucial to children's neurological and cognitive development. DHA, which makes up 30-60% of the retina, is also absolutely necessary for normal eye development.

Shockingly, a 2021 government survey on the diets of U.S. children between the ages of 1 and 6 found that 98% were deficient in DHA. Although EPA was not measured directly in this survey, as a close relative to DHA, it can be presumed EPA was low as well.

What Are Essential Fatty Acids?

Fatty acids are long-chain hydrocarbons that occur as a result of digestion. These are then absorbed into the blood to assist with select bodily functions. Typically, fatty acid molecules join up into larger molecular formations known as triglycerides. Foods contain over 20 types of fatty acids that are divided into four groups that reflect what you see on nutrition labels: saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and trans fats.

Essential fatty acids, such as the commonly referenced omega-3, help fuel and influence cellular functions, including holding onto energy. In addition, they're known for their anti-inflammatory effects. By contrast, non-essential fatty acids have been shown to influence the development of coronary heart disease.

EFAs are fats that our bodies need but are unable to make, so we have to get them from either food or supplements. There are two families of EFAs: the omega-6 family - a "parent" fatty acid called linoleic acid (LA) and several other fatty acids that the body can make from that parent, and the omega-3 family, which also has a "parent" fatty acid called linolenic acid (ALA) from which the body can make several more fatty acids, including EPA and DHA.

While most omega-6s are readily available from the diet (in fact we get too many of them, especially from highly processed (toxic) supermarket seed oils and conventionally raised animal products), most of us get too little of the omega-3s.

Not only are there fewer sources of ALA in our diets, but many people have difficulty converting ALA into the very important omega-3s, EPA and DHA. Fortunately, we can eat fish, which have performed this conversion for us and are a ready-made source of EPA and DHA. Unfortunately, our waterways have become increasingly toxic, which has made many of us limit fish consumption.

The Benefits of EFAs in Children's Diets

According to Gina Jaeger, Ph.D., decades of research have confirmed that adequate levels of EPA and DHA in children support:

  • Brain and central nervous system development and function.
  • Healthy immune response and respiratory wellness.
  • Better focus and attention.
  • Cognitive skills like reading and math.

Deficiencies have been linked with:

  • Difficulties in regulating behavior.
  • Suboptimal cognitive performance.
  • An unhealthy immune response to environmental stressors.

At the same time, she notes, government surveys continue to show that American children are deficient in these crucial fats.

How Children Can Get Sufficient EFAs

Mothers pass along EPA and DHA to their children in utero and through breastfeeding, but today's mothers often lack these fatty acids themselves. And a recent study found that only mothers who have been storing omega-3s for some time have enough in their bodies to influence the omega-3 content of their breast milk. In other words, if you haven't already stored a good amount of omega-3s, it won't do your baby any good if you suddenly start eating a lot of fish.

For many years, Beyond Health has recommended reducing omega-6s and increasing omega-3s by eliminating processed oils; choosing organic, grass-fed animal products, which will be higher in omega-3s and lower in omega-6s; eating more omega-3 rich dietary sources; and taking EFA supplements.

But what would be an appropriate amount of omega-3s from rich dietary sources and supplements for a child? Many foods have small amounts of omega-3s, but our primary sources are going to be from the rich sources and supplements.

The National Academy of Medicine recommends the following Adequate Intakes for omega-3 fatty acids:

  • 0-12 months 500 mg = 0.5 gram
  • 1-3 years 700 mg = 0.7 gram
  • 4-8 years 900 mg = 0.9 gram
  • 9-13 years 1.2 grams for boys, 1.0 grams for girls
  • 14-18 years 1.6 grams for boys, 1.1 gram for girls
  • Pregnancy & Breastfeeding 1.3 grams

But Dr. Jaeger, who works in the fish oil industry, believes most recommendations for omega-3s for children are much too low. She believes a daily dose of 2,000 mg (2 grams) from fish oil would be adequate for "healthy children ages 4-12." She notes that research has shown that doses higher than 5,000 mg (5 grams) have been well-tolerated by both children and adults.

Rich dietary sources of omega-3s include 3.5-ounce servings of mackerel (4,580 mg), salmon (2,150 mg), herring (2,150 mg), anchovies (2,053 mg), caviar (1,046 mg) and canned Atlantic sardines (982 mg); and one-ounce servings of flax seeds (6,388 mg), chia seeds (5,050 mg) and walnuts (2,570 mg).

Cod liver oil is a traditional source of omega-3s, as well as vitamins A and D for children. Beyond Health's Carlson's Professional Formula Cod Liver Oil contains 1,300 mg of omega-3s (400 mg EPA and 500 mg DHA) per teaspoon. Two soft gels of our Fish Oil Formula contain 1,650 mg omega-3s (600 mg EPA and 500 mg DHA). We also carry Udo's Choice, an all-vegan blend of omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9 oils (6 grams of omega-3s per tablespoon).

References:

  1. Bailey ADL. Nutritional intake adequacy from food and beverage intake of US children aged 1-6 years from NHANES 2001-2016. Nutrients. March 2021;13(3):827
  2. Jaeger G. Fish oil for kids: What’s the right does?. nordic.com, June 17, 2019.
  3. Francis R. The Oil Crisis. Beyond Health News, 2005.
  4. Beyond Health Staff. Get the health benefits of fish without the toxic mercury. June 10, 2012 . An article on research that found that frying fish and drinking black or green tea or coffee with it could reduce your mercury exposure by 50-60%.
  5. Olędzka G. The concentration of omega-3 fatty acids in human milk is related to their habitual but not current intake. Nutrients. Published online July 12, 2019 .
  6. Hjalmarsdottir F. 12 Foods that are very high in omega-3. healthline.com. Last medically reviewed May 17, 2022 .   

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Information contained in NewsClips articles should not be construed as personal medical advice or instruction. These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.