Omega-3 fatty acids are critical for a child’s brain function and overall growth and development. According to Dr. William Sears, M.D., in “The NDD Book,” "a deficiency of omega-3 fats is the No. 1 nutritional problem in kids." The recommended daily dose of omega-3 depends on the age and medical condition of the child. Dosage should be determined with the individual needs of the child in mind and only after consulting with the child's doctor or other health care provider.
Omega-3 fats are polyunsaturated fatty acids commonly referred to as essential fats because they are required nutrients for brain and body function. The body can't manufacture its own omega-3 fatty acids, so omega-3 fat must be eaten. The three major types of omega 3 fats are alphalinolenic acid or ALA, eicosapentaenoic acid or EPA and docosahexaenoic acid or DHA. EPA and DHA are the omega-3s that the brain and body actually use. ALA must be converted by the body into EPA and DHA.
Health Benefits of Omega-3 Fats for Children
Omega-3 fats are abundant in brain cells, nerve synapses, visual receptors, adrenal glands and sex glands and thus are vital to a child’s normal growth and development. Omega-3 fats are critical to keeping a child's brain and body in biochemical balance and providing children with the building blocks for a strong immune system. DHA is considered the most important omega-3 for the growing brain while EPA is considered vital for immune system health. Omega-3 fats also help reduce inflammation and may play a role in reducing the risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer and arthritis.
Daily Intake of Omega-3 Fats for Children
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration established daily values, or DVs, for total fat and saturated fat but has not yet established daily values for polyunsaturated fats like omega-3. The Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences established dietary reference intake or DRI for ALA for individuals based on age and sex. The ALA DRIs range from 500 mg for infants up to 1,600 mg per day for males aged 14 to 18. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Information Center website provides an interactive tool to determine DRIs for dietary planning. The tool determines the DRI for the nutrients listed, including ALA, based on the personal information provided. Dr. Sears, in “The NDD Book,” recommends different dosages for different ages. For infants, the recommended dose is at least 300 mg per day. For children ages 2 to 3, at least 400 mg per day is recommended. For children over 4, the recommended dose is at least 600 mg per day. Three ounces of salmon twice a week for children under 4 and 6 ounces of salmon twice a week for children over 4 provides approximately the amount of omega-3 a child needs over a four- to six-day period. Some health care providers recommend a higher therapeutic dose of up to 1,000 mg a day for children with autism, ADD, ADHD or learning disabilities.
Balancing Essential Fats for Children
A sometimes overlooked but equally important factor in determining the proper daily children’s dosage of omega-3 fat is the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats consumed. Examples of omega-6 fats include animal fats, safflower oil and soybean oil. Children’s brains need a ratio of around 2:1 or 3:1 of omega-6 to omega-3 fats. The average American diet ratio is more than 10:1. When omega-6s and omega-3s are out of balance, the body attacks itself and children suffer from inflammatory diseases such as asthma, eczema and inflammatory bowel disease. Thus, reducing omega-6 consumption while increasing omega-3 consumption may be necessary to obtain the proper balance of essential fats in a child’s diet.
Kid-Friendly Food Sources of Omega-3 Fats
For infants under 9 months of age, breast milk provides an average omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 2:1. For older infants and children, fatty fish like wild caught salmon, tuna or halibut provide both EPA and DHA omega-3 fats. Like breast milk, wild fish has a 2:1 omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. Flaxseed oil, nuts and nut oil contain omega-3 fat in the form of ALA. Because a child may not be able to efficiently convert ALA to DHA and EPA, seafood sources of omega-3 are preferable. Kid-friendly fish recipes can be found in “The NDD Book.”
Kid-Friendly Dietary Supplement Sources of Omega-3 Fats
For kids who refuse to eat fish, omega-3 supplements are available in oils, soft gel capsules and soft chews. These supplements are frequently flavored to hide the fishy taste kids may find unpalatable. When looking for supplements, watch for the words “Safe Source” to guarantee the oil is third-party tested, certified for purity and free of environmental contaminants. Also consider supplements that do not contain artificial colors and sweeteners.
- “The NDD Book”; William Sears, M.D.; 2009
- “Gut and Psychology Syndrome”; Natasha Campbell-McBride M.D.; 2004
- University of Maryland Medical Center; Omega-3 Fatty Acids; Steven D. Ehrlich, N.M.D.; June 2009
- “Special-Needs Kids Eat Right”; Judy Converse, M.P.H., R.D., L.D.; 2009
- The National Academies Press; Dietary Reference Intakes for Macronutrients; 2005
- U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Information Center; Interactive DRI for Healthcare Professionals;