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Food, Health, and Eco-news
Kids in US and Canada Deemed Omega-3 Deficient

Researchers express concern over low intakes; shortage undermines ability to achieve optimal health

by Craig Weatherby

The omega-3s found only in fish and fish oilcalled EPA and DHAare essential to health at all stages of life.

For infants up to the age of three, DHA is required for proper development of the brain and eyes.

After that, both EPA and DHA are important for thinking, learning, and memory, and research suggests that they may moderate behavior.

Humans can make EPA and DHA from the plant-form omega-3 called ALA.

But this is a very inefficient process that can be further reduced by the excess omega-6 fat intake characteristic of North American diets, and by genetic or other factors.

(The major source of omega-6s are common vegetable oilsexcept olive, macadamia nut, and hi-oleic sunflower oilsand the many packaged and prepared foods containing these oils.)

This is why even the conservative American Dietician Association recommends that children get at least 351 mg of EPA/DHA per day.

Canadian study finds kids falling short

A recent study in Canadian children found a shortage of omega-3 fatty acids in their diets… and this highlights a similar shortfall in the diets of American kids.

Judging by the Dietary Reference Intakes set by the U.S. Institute of Medicine, almost four in 10 Canadian children (39 percent) are not taking in adequate amounts of omega-3 ALA, while almost eight in 10 (78 percent) do not consume adequate amounts of omega-3 EPA and DHA.

The Institute of Medicine set the minimum recommended intake for DHA+EPA at only 10 percent of the Dietary Reference Intake for ALA… a level considered low by many experts in the field.

Using the intake levels for long-chain omega-3s recently set by Australia and New Zealand, 49 percent of the children fell short.

And, based on the recommendations of the American Dietician Association and the Dieticians of Canada (351 mg per day) 90 percent of the children in the study were deficient in omega-3 EPA/DHA.

The study involved 41 children aged four to eight (25 girls and 16 boys).

A team led by Professor Emeritus Bruce Holub, PhD, collected and analyzed samples of the food and supplements the children consumed over the course of three days.

Duplicate samples of each food and supplement were analyzed for nutrients, including the long-chain omega-3s (EPA and DHA) found only in fish and fish oil, and the short-chain omega-3 (ALA) found in green plant foods and some nuts and seeds.

As the Ontario team concluded, “These results demonstrate a moderate shortfall in ALA intake in Canadian children and a… [larger] nutrient gap for… [long-chain omega-3s] including DHA, when comparing intakes for this population to suggested and recommended intakes.”

The researchers found that the median daily consumption of omega-3 EPA and DHA was only 31.5 mg, which is less than one-third of the daily intake recommended by the Institute of Medicine which (90 mg of omega-3 EPA/DHA).

American kids also deemed deficient

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says that the average consumption of omega-3 EPA/DHA for children four to eight years of age is only 50 mg per day.

This suggests that the average American child consumes only about half the recommended intake levels.

The Guelph University researchers issued a strong warning (PRN 2009):

“There is an apparent need to create greater awareness of the importance of the long-chain (LC) omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) among health professionals and the general public, as well as the existing gap between actual and recommended intakes from various sources.

“This gap can be readily filled with an increased consumption of fish/seafood containing (omega-3) DHA/EPA, the increased availability of foods that have been nutritionally enriched with… omega-3 DHA/EPA, and the use of supplementation where necessary” (PRN 2009).

And a press release quoted Vital Choice friend and renowned, bestselling pediatrician William Sears, M.D. (PRN 2009): “For many years now infant formula has been supplemented with DHA so many parents are already aware of the health benefits associated with omega-3 for their children. However, it's critical for parents to understand that children, and everyone for that matter, need both omega-3 EPA and DHA from fish oil in their diet.”

As Dr. Sears went on to say, “We need parents to understand that fish oil is the only source of both EPA and DHA. DHA has benefits for infant's brain and eye development. However, as infants grow they need both omega-3 EPA and DHA for long-term cognitive development and to improve symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD), and to reduce the risk of developing type 1 diabetes” (PRN 2009).

We hope that parents and pediatricians are listening!


  • Madden SM, Garrioch CF, Holub BJ. Direct diet quantification indicates low intakes of (n-3) fatty acids in children 4 to 8 years old. J Nutr. 2009 Mar;139(3):528-32. Epub 2009 Jan 21.
  • PR Newswire (PRN). North American Children are Omega-3 Deficient and may be at risk for Suboptimal Health. March 5, 2009. Accessed online at