by Craig Weatherby
Alarming results from a clinical trial in American toddlers—very young kids from relatively affluent homes—confirms that most children don’t get enough omega-3s.
The new research in children warrants concern because young ones continue to accumulate the key developmental omega-3 fat—called DHA—in their brains for several years, even though brain growth slows.
Brain omega-3 DHA content is essential for brain structure and function, cell signaling, basic brain activity, and immune functions (especially moderation of inflammation).
Omega-3 DHA makes up about 40 percent of the myelin coating of brain cells and 60 percent of cell membranes in the retina, and is transferred from mother to fetus at a high rate during the third trimester of pregnancy.
Virtually all of the well-designed studies conducted to date have found better brain, movement, and/or visual function in children who ate more seafood than average… and in the children of mothers who consumed more seafood or fish oil than average during pregnancy and nursing (See “Findings Verify Safety and Value of Higher Maternal Fish Intake”).
It’s been clear for years that consumption of fish and their long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (DHA and EPA) fall short in many western countries… particularly among children and women of child-bearing age.
Breastfeeding and DHA-fortified infant formula can raise infants’ and toddlers’ consumption of the two long-chain omega-3s (EPA and DHA) essential to human survival and health, which otherwise occur only in seafood and algae.
Toddlers’ bodies can make omega-3 EPA and DHA from the only plant-form omega-3 (ALA)… but they, like all humans, do this very inefficiently.
Doctors recommend fish oil because it is the most effective, reliable way to raise blood levels of EPA and DHA.
And dietary DHA is most important, both because it is critical to development and to basic bodily and brain functions throughout life, and because the body can easily make EPA from dietary DHA, but cannot readily make DHA from dietary EPA.
Omega-3 shortage is well documented
The U.S. Institute of Medicine and the world’s top fat-research scientists recommend adult omega-3 intakes ranging from 260mg to 600mg of omega-3s (EPA + DHA) per day.
But data from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) shows that children under age 11 only consume about 30 mg of omega-3s daily, while children aged four to 8 years old consume only 20 mg of DHA per day.
And data from NHANES indicates that women aged 20 to 40 consume only about 100 mg per day, with 90 percent of women eating less than the FDA-recommended amount of fish.
After weaning, few American kids eat foods able to sustain optimal—or even adequate—cell levels of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA, which is far more important to brain and eye development, versus EPA.
And omega-3 EPA and DHA also appear to support toddler’s immunity.
For example, a clinical study among Thai infants found that those who received a fish oil supplement in addition to their traditional, fish-rich diet had fewer cases of bronchiolitis (Thienprasert A et al. 2008).
(Bronchiolitis is caused by an infection that affects the tiny airways that lead to the lungs. It most often affects infants and toddlers, whose small airways can get blocked more easily than those of older kids or adults.)
Now, a clinical study demonstrates that DHA-supplemented toddler formula can be effective in boosting DHA consumption in early childhood… and may have the added benefit of reducing respiratory illnesses.
Clinical study finds omega-3 shortage in kids, and related rise in respiratory illnesses
A team of scientists from the University of Kansas Medical Center and Mead Johnson Nutrition conducted a randomized controlled clinical trial in 86 middle and upper income toddlers.
One goal was to determine the average omega-3 DHA intakes, and they also tested the effects of providing them with different amounts of DHA for 60 days.
The children, all between the ages of 18 and 36 months, were randomly assigned to receive a milk-based toddler formula containing 0mg, 43mg or 130 mg of DHA per eight oz (237 milliliter) daily serving.
The average DHA intake of the children was estimated via parental diaries and a log of formula consumption.
The investigators measured the toddlers’ red blood cell DHA levels at the outset and again after 60 days, and monitored the children for illnesses and adverse events. (Medical records were obtained at the end of the study to verify reported illnesses.)
After 60 days, the toddlers who received the formula with the most omega-3 DHA (130 mg per bottle) formula enjoyed significantly lower risk of respiratory illnesses.
Respiratory illnesses affected only 17 percent of the DHA-130mg formula group, compared with 46 percent of the group whose formula contained no omega-3 DHA.
These results support the call issued recently by top scientists, urging the U.S. FDA to raise the amount of seafood recommended to pregnant/nursing women and young children.
Minns LM, Kerling EH, Neely MR, Sullivan DK, Wampler JL, Harris CL, Berseth CL, Carlson SE. Toddler formula supplemented with docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) improves DHA status and respiratory health in a randomized, double-blind, controlled trial of US children less than 3 years of age. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids 2010;82:287-293.
Thienprasert A, Samuhaseneetoo S, Popplestone K, West AL, Miles EA, Calder PC. Fish oil n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids selectively affect plasma cytokines and decrease illness in Thai schoolchildren: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled intervention trial. J Pediatr. 2009 Mar;154(3):391-5. Epub 2008 Oct 18.