We came across two intriguing studies while researching our companion article about infants' visual development (See “Moms’ Omega-3 Intake Impacts Infants’ Vision”).
The results of these related studies suggest that diets richer in omega-3s and lower in omega-6s than the average American eats could benefit children in ways beyond brain and eye development.
Coincidentally, both studies involved the Canadian researchers who conducted the clinical trial described in our companion article. It seems that this group—based at the British Columbia Children’s Hospital in Vancouver—shares our interest in fatty acid nutrition for kids.
Study #1—Oxidative stress is high in newborns
In 2004, one Canadian team reported finding that newborns show signs of unusual “oxidative stress”. This is another way of saying that newborns’ bodies contain unusually high levels of cell-damaging, inflammation-inducing free radicals.
They hypothesized that this undesirable situation arises because the womb is a low-oxygen environment, compared to life outside the womb, and it takes time for newborns’ internal antioxidant network to rise to this sudden, challenging change (Friel JK et al. 2004).
In accordance with this hypothesis, signs of oxidative stress began to decline at about four months of age, as the infants begin to adjust to ambient oxygen levels.
As they wrote, “…further study may be warranted to assess the potential benefits of antioxidant supplementation for either the mother or the infant" (Friel JK et al. 2004).
In addition to giving infants low, age-appropriate doses of antioxidant vitamin supplements, it would make sense for nursing mothers to favor colorful, antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables and to give infants heavily strained purees of these same foods.
And as our second study suggests, fat imbalance plays an ongoing role in oxidative stress, the chronic low-level inflammation it induces, and consequent health and obesity risks
Study #2 – Omega-imbalance raises inflammation and obesity risks
Last year, Sheila Innis, Ph.D., published an evidence review focused on the obesity risks associated with modern diets, which are very high in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats and very low in anti-inflammatory omega-3s.
She noted that adipose tissue—the fat just under our skin—regulates fatty acid balance and inflammation throughout the body and that obesity, even in young children, is associated with increased inflammation, as are diabetic tendencies.
And she stressed a key point: “As a result of changes in dietary fat compositions [from pre-industrial to modern diets], infants are exposed to high [intakes of] omega-6 … fatty acids and low [levels of] omega-3 fatty acids… High [intake of omega-6] linoleic acid is associated with increased oxidative stress" (Innis SM 2007).
Her conclusion seems right to us: “There is a biological reason to consider that [this imbalance in] dietary fatty acids may contribute to oxidative stress and heightened inflammatory responses [and consequent obesity risks] in young children” (Innis SM 2007).
Together with the findings about oxidative stress in newborns, Dr. Innis’ report suggests that in addition to the developmental advantages reported in our companion article, children may benefit in myriad ways when the diets of mothers and infants alike are lower in omega-6s and higher in omega-3s than usual.
- Friel JK, Friesen RW, Harding SV, Roberts LJ. Evidence of oxidative stress in full-term healthy infants. Pediatr Res. 2004 Dec;56(6):878-82. Epub 2004 Oct 6.
- Innis SM. Dietary lipids in early development: relevance to obesity, immune and inflammatory disorders. Curr Opin Endocrinol Diabetes Obes. 2007 Oct;14(5):359-64. Review.