Why Omega-3 Fatty Acids are Essential for Children’s Health

The polyunsaturated facts
Selection of food sources of omega-3
© Can Stock Photo / kerdkanno

Omega-3 fatty acids. Essential fatty acids. EFAs. DHAs. EPAs. These nutrients get name-dropped a lot in the health and wellness world and navigating them can feel a little like trying to learn a whole new dialect! But what are omega-3s and why are they especially important for children?

The vocabulary of omega-3

In order to understand why your child needs omega-3 fatty acids, it’s important to unpack what they’re comprised of and what those elements do.

Omega-3 fatty acids are chains of polyunsaturated fatty acids that are essential to normal metabolic cellular function.

FATTY ACIDS that derive from omega-3s and are relevant to human physiology:

  • ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) plays a role in cardiovascular health and nerve function; it has also been tied to lower blood sugar, reduced inflammation, and slower skin aging.

  • EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) is used clinically to reduce inflammation and treat depression.

  • DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is essential for neurodevelopment and cognitive function as well as being key for inflammation and cardiovascular health.

POLYUNSATURATED refers to both the number of hydrogen atoms bonded to the molecular chain and the composition of the bonds. Fewer hydrogen atoms (thus the chain is unsaturated by those atoms) means there are more double bonds (thus the poly: more than one bond) between the carbon atoms. These double bonds allow the molecule to bend, making it more flexible than a saturated fat, which has no double bonds and is fully packed (saturated) with hydrogen atoms. An easy way to keep them straight:

  • The more flexible polyunsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature (oils).

  • The less flexible saturated fats are solid (butter).

ESSENTIAL means they cannot be made by the human body and must come from food.

Your mini-me needs omega-3

Omega-3 fatty acids provide that critical ingredient for childhood: energy! But energy can’t be optimized unless nutrients are absorbed, and toxins and waste are expelled. Omega-3s play many other roles throughout the body, but their most basic function occurs in the cell membranes which are made up of lipids (fats). A cell membrane that is packed full of stiff, saturated fats becomes rigid; a cell rich with fluid, polyunsaturated fatty acids is much more flexible and allows for the easy entrance of nutrients and exit of waste products.

A more pliable membrane also makes for easier communication between the cells. Omega-3s are formed into signaling molecules known as eicosanoids which have a wide range of cardiovascular, immune, and pulmonary functions. They are also critical for proper brain function and may have an impact on mood and behavioural issues. Studies have shown that omega-3s have a large role in disease prevention and may help against cancer, some autoimmune diseases, and possibly even Alzheimer’s.

Signs of omega-3 deficiency

Omega-3 deficiencies can manifest in many ways that range from seemingly innocuous to very concerning.

  • Some are less pronounced physical signs like brittle nails, dry hair, flaky skin, or excessive ear wax.

  • More conspicuous symptoms like eczema, hay fever, hives, or asthma can be related to deficiency as well.

  • Lack of omega-3 has also been linked to anxiety and depression, behavioral issues like ADHD, and poor test performance.

While omega-6 fatty acids are essential, they can be sourced from many different foods (poultry, eggs, wheat, and vegetable oils, among many others) so omega-6 deficiencies are much less common than with omega-3 fatty acids, whose whole food sources are not as standard in the typical Western diet.

Getting omega-3s into little bellies!

There is no need to turn yourself inside out to find ways to sneak flax meal into everything your child eats. Two servings of fish plus two or three servings of pumpkin or chia seeds would provide enough omega-3s for the week. An ideal omega-3 intake for children is as follows:

  • 0-12 months: 0.5 grams/day

  • 1 to 3 years: 0.7 grams/day

  • 4 to 8 years: 0.9 grams/day

  • 9 to 13 years (boys): 1.2 grams/day

  • 9 to 13 years (girls): 1.0 grams/day

  • 14 to 18 years (boys): 1.6 grams/day

  • 14 to 18 years (girls): 1.1 grams/day

The best way to get enough omega-3 fatty acids into your child is to make sure they are eating a well-balanced diet that includes two servings of fatty fish per week and a range of foods that captures all three acids. But parents know it’s not always this easy! Check out Getting Omega-3s into Your Child’s Diet for some help doing just that. It’s easier than you think!