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Providing perspectives on recent research into vitamins and nutritionals


Making Certain Children Consume Enough Omega-3s

By Michael McBurney

Developing brains and eyes of children need long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFA). Two families of LCPUFA exist, omega-6 and omega-3, with the predominant fatty acid in our diet being linoleic acid (LA) and α-linolenic (ALA), respectively.

Differences in the number of double bonds in the omega-3 and omega-6 families generate slight modifications in the biochemical structure of their metabolites which can affect cell signaling pathways. For this reason, the balance of omega-6 and omega-3 fats in our diets affects the fatty acid composition of cells in the adult body.

Both LA and ALA can be elongated and desaturated in the body to make longer-chain LCPUFA. As an example, our bodies can make eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) from ALA. But our cells are not good at converting ALA to EPA and then DHA. It is better to consume the longer-chain LCPUFA, especially EPA and DHA.

Brenna and associates reviewed studies involving ready-to-use therapeutic foods (RUTFs). They report that balancing omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids in the diets of young children is important. RUTFs are high energy density foods, often formulated with vegetable oils containing LA, administered to millions of children suffering from acute malnutrition worldwide. Decreasing the intake of dietary LA, with or without concurrent increases in dietary omega-3 intake, increases the EPA and DHA content (omega-3 index) of red blood cells. So, the simplest solution is to increase DHA and EPA intake. Why is this important?

Using data from 28 countries (4,500 children per country), test scores in mathematics, reading and science of school-age children are positively related to breast milk DHA content (r=0.48 to 0.55) and negatively to LA content (r=-0.28 to -0.48). In school-aged children, blood DHA concentrations are correlated with reading ability and working memory, even after adjusting for the child’s sex and socio-economic status. Exploratory pilot data suggests that higher blood DHA levels may relate to better child sleep.

Parenting children is a balancing act between work, home, and child-related social activities. Adding a need to consider fatty acid intake to the mix can be overwhelming.

The simplest solution is to increase omega-3 intake. Professional organizations are recommending 500 mg EPA and DHA daily for adults. Children need about half that amount. Ask your pediatrician.

Main Citations

Brenna JT, Akomo P, Bahwere P, Berkley JA, Calder PC, Jones KD, Liu L, Manary M, Trehan I, Briend A. Balancing omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids in ready-to-use therapeutic foods (RUTF). 2015 BMC Med doi: 10.1186/s12916-015-0352-1

Richardson A. Omega-3 and sleep: New insights from the DHA Oxford Learning and Behaviour (DOLAB) study. 2015 Lipid Tech doi: 10.1002/lite.201500014

Other Citations

Wood KE, Mantzioris E, Gibson RA, Ramsden CE, Muhlhausler BS.The effect of modifying LA and ALA intakes on omega-3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid (n-3 LCPUFA) status in adult humans: A systematic review and commentary. 2015 PLEFA doi: 10.1016/j.plefa.2015.01.001

MacIntosh BA, Ramsden CE, Faurot KR, Zamora D, Mangan M, Hibbeln JR, Mann JD. Low-n-6 and low-n-6 plus high-n-3 diets for use in clinical research. 2012 Br J Nutr doi: 10.1017/S0007114512005181

Lassek WD, Gaulin SJC. Linoleic and docosahexaenoic acids in human milk have opposite relationships with cognitive test performance in a sample of 28 countries. 2014 PLEFA doi: 10.1016/j.plefa.2014.007.017

Salem Jr, N, Eggersdorfer M. Is the world supply of omega-3 fatty acids adequate for optimal human nutrition? 2015 Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metabol Care doi: 10.1097/MCO.0000000000000145

Montgomery P, Burton JR, Sewell RP, Spreckelsen TF, Richardson AJ. Low blood long chain omega-3 fatty acids in UK children are associated with poor cognitive performance and behavior: A cross-sectional analysis from the DOLAB study. 2013 PLoSONE doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0066697