DHA & Omega-3 Fatty Acids

If you’ve strolled the infant formula and children’s-food aisles of many grocery stores, you may have noticed that several items now tout “DHA” on their labels.

Once only found in a few fortified formulas, you can now find all infant formulas and many toddler formulas, as well as some milk varieties and various other foods, are fortified with this valuable nutrient.

DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid, along with EPA (eicosapentaeoic acid) and ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) are the three most nutritionally important Omega-3 fatty acids, which are a specific type of polyunsaturated fatty acid. These specialized fatty acids reportedly play a role in the prevention or treatment of a numberof health conditions, including, cardiovascular disease, depression, eczema, and ADHD.  In children, Omega-3 fatty acids are known to encourage healthy brain development, especially during the first two years of life.  While they are required in different quantities, the specific fatty acids are equally important, as they work together in a complex process.

Which Foods Contain Omega-3 Fatty Acids?

During the first year of life, babies get their Omega-3s from either breast milk or fortified formula. As far as foods go, fatty fish such as salmon and sardines are often considered the rock stars. Often forgotten, but also well-endowed Omega-3 seafood sources include halibut, shrimp, cod, trout, and tuna — all generally low in mercury too. Tofu and soybeans, kale and collard greens, flaxseeds and walnuts, grass-fed beef, and milk that comes from grass-fed cows all contain the good stuff.

Some brands of milk are fortified with DHA. They are not fortified with EPA, however. And remember, since they are collaborators, we need both of them. Any way you look at it, there’s something for everyone when it comes to food sources of Omega-3s.

What are the Recommendations for Children?

Evelyn Tribole, RD, author of The Ultimate Omega-3 Diet, cites international guidelines suggesting that children 2–3 years old get 433 mg of DHA/EPA, with a minimum of 145mg of DHA. 4-6 years old get 600mg of DHA/EPA, with a minimum of 200mg of DHA.

How Can You Increase Your Omega-3 Fatty Acids?

Certainly, taking a supplement (whether fish oil-based or algae-based) is one way of increasing Omega-3 consumption, especially for our vegetarian friends. At the same time, there are many ways to naturally boost these superstars through the foods we eat.

For good health, we should aim (for ourselves and our children) to get at least one rich source of omega-3 fatty acids every day. This could be through a serving of fatty fish (try fish tacos, tuna fish sandwiches, or salmon patties), a tablespoon of canola or soybean oil in salad dressing or in cooking (a little less for the kiddos), or a handful of walnuts or ground flaxseed mixed into morning oatmeal.

Check out this shopping list for foods that are good sources.

What About Omega-6 Fatty Acids?

Omega-6 fatty acids are another part of the equation, and while they are also essential (our bodies don’t produce them naturally, so we must consume them), too much of them can crowd out the Omega-3s and increase the risk of developing chronic diseases. We get most of Our omega-6s from margarines, spreads and salad dressings, and packaged processed foods. Canola and olive oil-based dressings and spreads are preferable to those made with soybean, cottonseed, and corn oils.

The Bottom Line:

It’s easy to get wrapped up in the hype of food marketing and the nitty gritty of guidelines. If you’re reading this, I’m guessing you’re already doing a great job of nourishing your child(ren). Keep it simple and aim for at least one solid serving per day of an Omega-3 superstar.

Anne Marie Kuchera, our Kids Plus Nutrition Consultant, is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Registered Dietitian.