Ask the Expert – Omega 3 for Toddlers

Ask The Expert is a weekly column on Littlestomaks.com. The idea is to have a reader-submitted question answered by a nutrition expert or a pediatrician. Feel free to submit your question in the comments section below.

This week, Registered Dietitian Victoria Retelny explains why omega-3 is important for growing children and suggests a few food sources of these essential fatty acids.

Victoria-Retelny

Victoria Shanta Retelny, RD, LDN

  • Loyola University Chicago – Food & Nutrition Program
  • Registered, Licensed Dietitian – Nutrition Communications Expert
  • Media Resource, Nutrition Therapist, Freelance Writer, Speaker
  • Website: Livingwell Communications
  • Twitter: @vsrnutrition
  • Contact: via email from website

Question: Is Omega 3 proven to be helpful for children? Can you recommend a few good sources and brands of Omega 3?

Answer:

Yes, omega-3 fatty acids, particularly docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which are found in breast milk, are beneficial for children’s normal growth and development.  For infants, DHA has been found to be vital for visual and brain function and development.  Some research has shown these essential fats to help children with attention deficit & hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). As children grow into adults, there is evidence that omega-3s are a great way to keep the heart healthy, too.

As always, food sources should be the first choice for your child’s diet.  Omega-3 fatty acids come from two sources: plant foods like walnuts, flaxseeds, tofu, soybeans, and canola oil, which contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and fatty fish, which contain both DHA and EPA.  Some of the best fish sources of omega-3s are salmon, albacore tuna, lake trout, mackerel, and herring.  Since some fish can be high in mercury and other contaminants, there are limits to how much children (and adults) should eat.  According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency, up to two average fish meals or 12 oz per week – is safe for children.  Since albacore tuna is higher in mercury than chunk light tuna, limit the serving to 6 oz. per week.

The types of fish that children (and adults) should avoid due to high mercury levels:

  • Shark
  • Swordfish
  • King mackerel
  • Tilefish (Golden bass)

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005, advise people to check local advisories to learn about the safety of fish caught in nearby local lakes, rivers, and coastal areas. Advisories may recommend that people limit or avoid eating some types of fish caught in certain places. If no advice is available, young children may eat up to 1 meal per week of fish from local waters, but no other fish during that week.

The U.S. dietary supplement market is exploding with omega-3 capsules. Use caution, particularly with young children, when giving supplements – of any type.  Dietary supplements are not regulated by the federal government.  According to the FDA’s Web site, supplements ingredients may be reviewed for safety, but not effectiveness.  The ultimate responsibility for product safety is on the manufacturers and distributors before the supplements reach store shelves. The FDA will step in if products are found to be unsafe or if they contain false or misleading claims.

So what are good sources of omega-3s for children?  The best sources are fish and “designer” foods like omega-3 fortified cereal, yogurt and eggs.  Although, a recent article in Journal of the American Dietetic Association states that there is no specific recommendation for EPA and DHA individually right now, the need to get a balanced diet that includes essential fatty acids like omega-3s is important, particularly for growing children.  As always, consult a physician before giving fish oil capsules to children under 18 years old.

References:
Kris-Etherton P, Hill AM.  n-3 fatty acids: food or supplements?  J Am Diet Assoc (2008):108(7);1125-1130.

US Food and Drug Administration, Dietary Supplements: What You Need to Know.

Omega-3 fatty acids, fish oil, alpha-linolenic.  The National Institutes of Health, Medline Plus.

Dietary Guidelines for Americans. MyPyramid for Preschoolers.

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Disclaimer – Information provided in Ask The Expert column on Littlestomaks.com is intended to give you general guidance on a question related to toddler nutrition. It is not meant to be treated as medical advice. You are welcome to contact this expert for a detailed consultation on your specific situation to determine what actions, if any, you should take regarding nutrition and health of your toddlers. We do not recommend you to take any action based solely on the information presented in this column. Experts have agreed to provide their professional opinion on toddler nutrition related questions on a voluntary basis and no compensation is offered to them by Littlestomaks.com.

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