Let’s talk about the importance of omega-3s in children’s diet. We know that these fats are important for our health, but are we getting enough of this nutrient?
Omega-3s have many health benefits for every age group – they are an important component for a healthy pregnancy, and they offer many benefits for people of old age.
What are Omega-3s?
Omega-3s are essential fatty acids. Our body cannot produce them and we need to make sure we get enough through our diet. They are well known for their anti-inflammatory properties. Inflammation in the body can be the related to many chronic diseases, such as heart disease and arthritis.
Omega-3s have been shown to help reverse heart disease, boost immune function, fight degenerative disease, enhance fertility, improve mental health, and promote healthy skin. Adequate supply of this nutrient makes you less vulnerable to inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, and less prone to many mental and emotional disorders including depression and Alzheimer’s disease.
Sources of omega-3s
In the past, people got ample omega-3s from eating a variety of wild plants or from wild game. Today however, people eat less of these foods, and consume more modern meats and dairy products, which contain greatly reduced levels of omega-3s. This makes many people likely to be deficient of this critical nutrient.
Where then can you get omega-3s today?
They are plentiful in flaxseeds and in flaxseed oil as well as in fatty fish such as wild salmon, herring, mackerel, and sardines. Omega-3s can also be found in lesser amounts in walnuts, hemp seeds, green leafy vegetables, and canola oil.
Types of omega-3s
You probably have heard of the long-chain omega-3s DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), which are necessary for healthy functioning and development. Both DHA and EPA are important for the heart, and DHA is especially crucial for the brain development of fetuses and newborns. DHA makes up 15 to 20 percent of the cerebral cortex and 30 to 60 percent of the retina, so it is essential for the healthy development of the fetus and baby and all growing children.
Wild fatty fish, such as salmon, are a good source of DHA and EPA, and for babies – breastmilk (only IF the mother is consuming DHA rich foods in her diet) or formula are sources of this important nutrient.
Essential fatty acid
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is found in plants like walnuts, flax seeds, chia and hemp seeds. ALA is an essential fatty acid, because our body cannot make it. The only way to get this nutrient in our body is through the food we consume.
Our bodies use ALA to make the long-chain omega-3s EPA and DHA discussed above. It is important to note however, that the conversion rate of ALA to DHA is very low (about 3,8%*) and as mentioned the only place to find DHA in food is in fish and eggs, which can be a problem for vegans and vegetarians.
Flax seeds are a great source of omega-3s and adding flax seeds in your diet can offer you many other benefits besides this healthy fat. However, the omega-3s in flax seeds do not provide any significant long-chain fatty acids.
The problem with fish
Fish has the reputation of a healthy food mainly because of the extremely high concentrations of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids found in wild salmon and other wild fatty fish. Fish however does not manufacture omega-3s, but wild salmon get them by eating certain algae that make these important nutrients, which are then concentrated and stored in the salmon’s body fat. Wild salmon are plentiful sources of omega-3s. Farmed fish, however, have far fewer of these essential nutrients.
Additionally, most fish we eat today is farmed. Many farmed fish tend to be higher than wild fish in toxic chemicals and other pollutants that can negatively affect the central nervous system and the immune system.
Farmed fish can also be contaminated with PCBs and dioxins. The other dark side of fish is mercury contamination. Methyl mercury attacks the brain and the entire nervous system and causes behavioral problems and loss of intelligence. It also can impair the immune and reproductive systems.2 This can particularly be a cause of concern for children, as they have a reduced ability to detoxify heavy metals such as mercury.
We also know how overfishing is wreaking havoc on fish populations and how our oceans, lakes and rivers are becoming depleted.
What to do?
If you do eat fish, make sure that you choose wild fish, such as wild salmon and avoid farmed fish. To reduce the mercury exposure, choose small fish that is at the end of the food chain. Sardines are a good example. Also, don’t go overboard with consuming fish and keep it to a maximum of two servings per week. In this case less is probably better.
Take an omega-3 supplement
Fish oil presents the same concerns mentioned about fish, so if you do choose to supplement with fish oil, make sure you do know where and how this oil is being sourced and processed. If you do not consume fish, you can supplement DHA and EPA from an algae-based supplement.
Keep a healthy ratio of omega-3s and omega-6s in your diet
Lastly, it is important to note that omega-6s compete with the omega-3s found in flax and other plant foods, making them less available to the body. The ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is about two to one, but nowadays it is easy to go overboard with omega-6 rich foods. Omega-6 are found in many vegetable oils, packaged food, and butter. To get this ratio to work optimally for you, make sure the fat you consume comes from whole plant foods, such as nuts, seeds and avocados. Use extra virgin olive oil and flax oil (only in salads!) and avoid oils high in omega-6s, such as sunflower, safflower or corn oil. And finally, limit your consumption of processed and fried foods, and avoid anything partially hydrogenated, as these foods are often made with omega-6 oils.
2 Juliet Eilperin, “Farmed salmon raise concerns: study cites high levels of chemical fire retardants” Washington post August 11,2004