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It might surprise you to learn that omega 3 is a fat. It’s a healthy fat and a critical nutrient for babies and children.
What are healthy fats?
There are lots of different types of fat and they all not all equal. You will probably have heard of saturated and unsaturated fat, it’s the unsaturated fats that are beneficial for health.
Unsaturated fats are found in oils from fish and plants and can either be monounsaturated or polyunsaturated, both are needed for your child’s brain and visual development.
Which type of unsaturated fat is the most important for my baby?
There is a group of polyunsaturated fats called Omega 3. In nutrition, we talk about fats as ‘fatty acids’ as this is how they are made up. Omega-3 is an ‘Essential Fatty Acid’ or EFA because your child’s body cannot make them, so it is vital that they come from food.
Omega-3 is consists of many different compounds but the three most commonly referred to are:
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA),
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
What do Omega 3 fats do?
They are needed in every cell in your child’s body. They have anti-inflammatory properties (reduces swelling), they are also involved in the messaging between the brain and the rest of the body, meaning they can have an impact on your little ones mood, concentration, intellect and attention. There is strong evidence that omega 3 plays a major role in brain development and the retina of the eye.
The best form of DHA can be found in oily fish such as salmon, trout, mackerel, herring, sardines and anchovies. A small amount can also be found in white fish along with EPA too.
ALA is found in plant foods like chia seeds, linseeds, hemp, walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, tofu, rapeseed oil and in some green leafy vegetables. However this type of omega 3 has to be converted by the liver into DHA and EPA in your child’s body and the conversion isn’t very efficient meaning unless your child eats fish, they are unlikely to get enough DHA to meet their needs.
How much fish should my child to meet their requirements?
It’s actually a relatively small amount of fish as DHA is highly concentrated in oily fish. The NHS guidelines recommend up to 2 portions of fish per week, one of which should be oily. In reality, it does no harm if both these portions a week are oily fish (as opposed to one white fish and one oily fish) as the amount of food babies and children actually eat is variable.
However, it is important not to give your child any more than two portions as oily fish can contain pollutants which can build up in the body and we don’t yet understand how toxic this may be.
One thing we do know is that swordfish, shark and marlin do contain very high levels of the pollutant mercury and therefore it is advised that children avoid eating these. Tuna, although not an oily fish, also contains a small amount of mercury too so children should have this no more than twice a week.
Fish also contains other important nutrients including protein, iodine, selenium, calcium, vitamin A and vitamin D. So fish is a really rich source of nutrients for your child.
What is a portion?
A portion of fish varies as your child grows:
6 – 18 months: 20g – 30g fish (1/4 of a fillet)
18 months – 3 years: 30-90g (1/4 – 3/4 of a fillet)
4-6 years: 60-120g (1/2 to one small fillet)
Can my child get omega 3 from their milk?
Breastfeeding mums will pass on omega 3 to their babies through their milk, so it’s important that you eat at least one portion of oily fish per week too. And because omega 3 is so important for babies, by law all infant formula have to have omega 3 fatty acids added too.
Cows milk however does not contain very much omega 3.
As my little one gets older is omega-3 still important?
Omega 3 is good for all of us including older children and adults as it also has proven heart health benefits. Both EPA and DHA are responsible for healthy functioning of the heart, they keep blood pressure where it should be and unhealthy blood fats (triglycerides and cholesterol) low.
However using oily fish supplements have not shown this effect so its important that omega 3 comes directly from food. This indicates that there may be another compound in food that enhances the effects of omega 3 that we are not yet aware of!
Should I buy farmed fish or wild fish?
In terms of where your fish comes from, farmed fish have higher levels of DHA and EPA than wild fish because of the food the farmed fish have been fed. They’re also likely to be lower in pollutants too. However, it is down to personal choice as to which you want to buy.
You can also buy frozen fish, it doesn’t need to be fresh, which can keep costs down whilst ensuring you’re still getting those key nutrients.
I’m raising raising my child vegetarian, what vegetarian omega 3 sources are there?
If you don’t eat fish, you can obtain ALA from plant-based foods which your baby’s body will convert. However, this isn’t efficient and the conversion is slow forming only small amounts of DHA. This is not enough for your child and so they will need a supplement.
Plant based sources of ALA include chia seeds, linseeds, ground walnuts, soya and tofu, hemp seeds, rapeseed oil, ground hazelnuts, ground pecans or pecan butter and green leafy vegetables.
Algal oil (made from algae) contains DHA in a vegan form in an amount that is similar to oily fish so do consider supplementing your child’s diet with this. Look for algal oil supplements that will provide:
6 months – 2 years 100mg of DHA
2 years – 18 years 250mg of EPA and DHA
You can also buy omega 3 enriched eggs from hens have been fed a diet high in omega 3, where the yolk is particularly a good source of omega 3. These are not available in all supermarkets and you may have to shop around.
What about vegans?
Those who follow a 100% plant-based diet (vegan) seem to have better conversion rates of ALA to both DHA and EPA, than those who eat a mixed diet. Unfortunately, there is a limited amount of research in this area so there aren’t any official guidelines regarding how much of these foods your baby/child should eat.
An algal oil based supplement is probably a good idea. Look for algal oil supplements that will provide:
6 months – 2 years 100mg of DHA
2 years – 18 years 250mg of EPA and DH
We’re not vegetarian but my child really doesn’t like fish. Can you recommend a supplement?
My son is exactly the same! There are supplements specifically designed for young ones, suitable from 6 months of age and upwards. I like Bare Biology Super Hero
and just one drop (1ml) contains 500mg DHA and 130mg EPA. They have a lemon taste and because you only need a tiny dose, I add them to pancake batter, smoothies, mixed into yoghurt…you name it we’ve tried it!
NOTE: If you choose to buy Super Hero through the link above, Bare Biology will give a small amount of money to me to say thank you, which goes towards the cost of running this blog. The price to you remains the same.
I’ve heard omega-3 can be helpful in managing behaviour and concentration. Is this right?
In terms of behaviour, there is some evidence that omega 3 can be helpful in terms of reducing:
Reading ability in children with ADHD.
The good news is that both dietary sources of omega 3 and supplements seem to work. If ADHD is a concern, please ask your GP to refer you to an NHS dietitian as there are other dietary aspects to consider in combination with omega 3 for children with ADHD too.
What about omega 3 for helping my child do better at school?
Although there is no evidence to suggest that omega 3 improves intellectual ability, there is a suggestion that both supplements and dietary sources of omega 3 improve immune function, memory, verbal learning, comprehension, vocabulary and classroom behaviour. Whilst the research is not conclusive, there is certainly no harm in giving your child an omega 3 rich diet, so it’s probably worth considering when planning your family’s meals.
Try some of these omega 3 rich recipes here;
With thanks to Charli Farrar, my intern for her help in writing this blog.
Sarah Almond Bushell MPhil, BSc (Hons) RD MBDA – Registered Dietitian & Children’s Nutritionist