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Raising strong, healthy kids requires a good, nutritious diet – and one of the significant components of that good diet is an adequate serving of daily omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-3s are such a critical factor in healthy childhood development that expecting mothers need to watch their intake almost as soon as their babies are conceived! If you're looking to add omega-3s to your developing child's diet, here's what you need to know.
What are omega-3s?
Omega-3s are a kind of healthy fatty acid that your child can get from their diet and/or supplements.
On a more technical level, omega-3 fatty acids are part of the polyunsaturated fatty acid group (PUFAs). PUFAs are often referred to as “healthy fats” since they can play a wide range of roles in keeping your heart, nervous system, and overall body healthy and protected from oxidative damage. Omega-3s are crucial building blocks for cell membranes and hormones throughout your body. To put it more simply: omega-3 fatty acids are an essential nutrient for the development of a healthy body!
There are three main kinds of omega-3s you’ll want to make sure are in your child’s diet:
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
Benefits of omega-3s for kids
From the very first stages of fetal development through old age, omega-3s are an essential nutrient for your body. But they are absolutely crucial during the developmental stages of babyhood through childhood.
Brain health and development
Omega-3s play an important role as an essential building block for your brain and nervous system.
Your brain is made up largely of fat, which coats your brain cells and helps them to communicate with each other. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a type of omega-3 fatty acid, is the most significant kind of polyunsaturated fatty acid fat found in your brain. So getting enough DHA is essential for healthy brain development!
Adequate omega-3 intake leads to a couple of different benefits that affect areas ranging from cognitive abilities to behavior. All of them are good news for the development and functioning of your child's brain! For example, one study that gave DHA supplements to healthy four-year-old children found a positive association between DHA levels found in their blood and their vocabulary test scores.* In another example, another study found that children who were given an omega-3 supplement saw improvements in antisocial and aggressive behaviors.*
Omega-3s play such a huge role in healthy development that you should be getting enough of them even when your child is still developing inside the womb. Omega-3s are often components of prenatal supplements since they can begin accumulating and helping your child develop even in their earliest stages.
On a related note, DHA is also important for your eyes! Your child’s retina is the light-sensitive layer of cells in the back of their eyes. This layer of cells then sends signals to their brain, which can interpret what they’re seeing! The retina is highly enriched with DHA, so getting enough omega-3s in their earliest stages of development can help optimize the development of their vision.
Omega-3 fatty acids are perhaps most well-known for their potential anti-inflammatory effects on the body.* Inflammation is your immune system’s natural defensive response against injuries and illnesses. But under certain conditions, inflammation can become chronic, which can ultimately be harmful and is linked to conditions like asthma and allergies. Luckily, the inflammation-fighting powers of omega-3s can help. For example, there’s evidence that children who get enough omega-3s may have fewer asthmatic symptoms!*
Promotes good sleep
Getting enough good, high-quality sleep is one of the cornerstones of healthy childhood development. But if your child has difficulty falling (or staying) asleep at night, omega-3 fatty acids might help! Some researchers believe that omega-3s can support the production of melatonin, a natural hormone that your body produces during the nighttime hours and which is responsible for making you feel drowsy. When it comes to your kids, more and more evidence supports the idea that children with higher omega-3 fatty acid levels in their blood tend to report having a better-quality sleep at night.*
Sources of omega-3s
There are plenty of ways to ensure that your child is getting all the omega-3 fatty acids they need for optimal health and development.
Your first option is fish. Fatty, cold-water fish like salmon, mackerel, and tuna are among some of the most well-known sources of DHA. They're also an excellent way to get EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), another type of omega-3 fatty acid that is especially useful for your heart health.* Because fatty fish have such a rich store of these two types of omega-3s, you can try incorporating them into your family's diet several times a week. As a reference, the American Heart Association recommends eating two servings of fish per week.
Alternatively, you can also give your child an omega-3 supplement made of fish oil. Fish oil supplements are made with the rich omega-3 fatty oils from fatty fish oil but packaged into a pill or capsule, which may be a more convenient option for your child. Another close alternative is cod liver oil, which delivers a good dose of Vitamins D and A in addition to omega-3 fatty acids for overall diet support.
But even though fatty fish and fish oil pills are popular omega-3 sources, they might not always be the right for your child and your family. In cases like this, you might need to look to plant-based omega-3s instead!
Vegan omega-3 sources
If your family eats a vegan/vegetarian diet, or if your kids just can't stomach the idea of fish regularly, you can make sure they are getting their omega-3s by incorporating certain nuts, seeds, and vegetables in their diet instead.
Most plant-based omega-3s contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the third type of omega-3 fatty acid. Walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds, and olive oil are all vegan-friendly foods that contain ALA. There are also vegan supplements like flaxseed oil which you can add to your family’s diet to ensure that you are all meeting your omega-3 needs.
However, these ALA sources on their own might not be enough for your growing child’s nutrition needs. While your kids can use DHA and EPA as soon as they’re metabolized, ALA first needs to be converted to DHA and EPA, a process that research confirms isn’t very efficient. There's some evidence that a lack of dietary marine omega-3s sources has been linked to issues like ADHD, autism, bipolar disorder, and depression!
So, when it comes to vegan childhood nutrition, one of the best fish oil alternatives is algae oil. This marine omega-3 source is plant-based, made from microalgae oils that produce EPA and DHA via photosynthesis. It's an excellent way to ensure that you, your kids, and your entire family are getting enough EPA and DHA without compromising on taste or nutrient bioavailability. Algae oil is also a great alternate option to fish oils if you are pregnant since fish and fish products can sometimes contain mercury. This toxic metal can accumulate in your body and become harmful to your developing baby.
Omega-3 side effects
Omega-3 supplements are a convenient way to help your kids meet their omega-3 needs. However, it’s important to note that they can sometimes come with side effects and symptoms. Common side effects of omega-3 supplements include:
Other uncomfortable or offputting side-effects of fish oil pills include unpleasant tastes and subsequent bad breath/"fish burps." However, this wouldn't be an issue if you're using a vegan omega-3 source that does not contain fish, like algae oil pills. Before starting omega-3 supplements (or any supplements, for that matter), check in with your child's pediatrician.
Omega-3 Dosage for kids
There are currently no recommended combined omega-3 dosages for either children or adults, so it's best to check your supplement's directions and consult with your pediatrician to figure out the best amount for your child. However, there's enough research to support an official Adequate Intake (AI), which is the amount of omega-3s necessary to meet nutritional adequacy each day. The AI for children by age:
- 0.5 grams from birth through 12 months of age
- 0.7 grams of ALA from 1-3 years old
- 0.9 grams of ALA from 4-8 years old
- 1.2 grams of ALA for males / 1.0 grams of ALA for females from 9-13 years old
- 1.6 grams of ALA for males / 1.1 grams of ALA for females from 13-18 years old
As far as supplementation goes, many experts agree that doses up to 1000 mg of EPA and DHA are adequate for most children (but again, check in with a healthcare professional).
If you’re a pregnant or breastfeeding mother, it’s also important to consider how much omega-3 you’re getting every day so that those developmental benefits can trickle down to your child! As a general rule, expecting mothers should get 650 mg of combined omega-3s every day (300 of which should be from DHA), and breastfeeding mothers should get about 250-375 mg of combined EPA+DHA.
Choosing the right omega-3 for your kids
Ready to help your family get their daily dose of omega-3s? Here’s a simple guide to choosing the best omega-3 source for your kids to help develop their bright minds and healthy bodies:
When shopping around for supplements, you don't necessarily need an omega-3 pill targeted explicitly toward children - you just need to pay attention to the dosage. You'll want to make sure that the supplement you choose is made up of both EPA and DHA for the best results.
Remember, most experts agree that up to 1000 mg of EPA and DHA is a good dose for most kids, but double-check with your children’s doctor before settling on a supplement brand.
2. Capsule size
Some omega-3 supplements are really large and can be tough pills to swallow (pun intended). Look for smaller capsules that your kids can confidently swallow. As an alternative, you can also cut your capsules in half and add them to their food for pain-free daily nutrition or for kids who can't take pills very well.
3. Source of omega-3
Finally, the omega-3 source matters. Is your kid a picky eater who can't stand the taste of fish or the subsequent bad breath from fish pills? Are you contending with any fish or seafood allergies that might make fish pills an unsafe choice? If so, you might be better off choosing an algae oil supplement to ensure that you are getting all the right nutrients (in this case, DHA and EPA) without dealing with the fishy aftertaste.
It's also very worth considering the environmental impact your supplement choices can have. The commercial fishing industry leads to overfishing and environmental damage. Choosing vegan foods and supplements more often is an excellent way to preserve this beautiful earth for years to come for your children and all the generations that come after them.
You want to give your kids the very best, and their diet quality and nutrition supplements are no exception. To provide those bright eyes and minds all the nutrients they need to develop and shine, make sure that you're adding the omega-3s DHA and EPA to your child's diet and supplement routine every day!