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Fatty Acid from Fish Is Brain Food for Kids

Fatty Acid from Fish Is Brain Food for Kids: Main Image
Children in the lowest 20% for reading who received DHA improved slightly more
More and more, science supports fish oil's reputation as brain food. The latest evidence comes from a study that found both reading and behavior improved in primary school-aged children who were reading below their grade level after supplementing with the omega-3 fatty acid DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).

Giving the brain a boost

The study, published in PLoS One, included 362 reading-challenged children from 6 to 10 years old attending primary school in Oxfordshire, UK. All of the children ate fish no more than twice per week and had reading scores in the lowest 33% for their age, which means that their reading ability was approximately 18 months below the expectation for their actual age. They were given either 600 mg of DHA or a similar amount of a corn and soybean oil blend every day for 16 weeks.

Reading and behavior improve

To assess the effect of DHA, reading and memory tests were performed, and parents and teachers filled out questionnaires about the children's behavior, at the beginning and end of the study. The assessments showed the following:

  • Overall, the children in the DHA group improved the same amount in reading as the children who received the corn/soy oil; however, when considered separately, the DHA-taking children in the lowest 20% for reading (reading at a level 2 years younger than their age) improved significantly more than their corn/soy oil counterparts. Reading improvement was most pronounced in children with reading scores in the lowest 10% for their age.
  • Children in the lowest 20% for reading who received DHA improved slightly more on memory tests than those on the corn/soy oil blend, but this difference was not statistically significant.
  • Parents' behavior ratings for the children taking DHA improved more than those for the children receiving the corn/soy oil blend. Teachers' behavior ratings, however, showed no difference in behavioral improvements in the DHA and corn/soy oil groups.

"This study provides the first evidence that dietary supplementation with the omega-3 [fatty acid] DHA might improve both the behavior and the learning of healthy children from the general school population," the study's authors said. They further pointed out that, based on their findings, "DHA supplementation should be regarded as a targeted intervention for the poorest readers, rather than as a universal [approach]."

Nourishing your child to help them learn

DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid found in fish and fish oil, which, along with EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), is known to be important for normal brain and nervous system development, and there is growing evidence that low intakes of EPA and DHA are associated with learning and behavior problems in children.

Here are some things to consider if your child needs support for reading and behavior difficulties:

  • Let them eat fish. The amount of DHA used in this study can only be reached by eating a couple of ounces of fish every day. Unfortunately, water contaminants like mercury and PCBs accumulate in fish, making it potentially unsafe for children to eat fish every day. Having fish two to three times per week is generally considered safe, and supplements like the one used in this study can be used to keep DHA intake high between fish meals.
  • Sell them on seaweed. Seaweed contains small amounts of DHA. Snacking on seaweeds like nori and dulse and including them in rice dishes and soups is a nice way to give your child's intake of DHA a little boost.
  • Choose fortified foods. EPA and DHA fortified eggs and dairy products are increasingly available. Including these foods will further enhance your child's omega-3 fatty acid intake.

(PLoS One 2012;7:e43909. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0043909)

Maureen Williams, ND, completed her doctorate in naturopathic medicine at Bastyr University in Seattle and has been in private practice since 1995. With an abiding commitment to access to care, she has worked in free clinics in the US and Canada, and in rural clinics in Guatemala and Honduras where she has studied traditional herbal medicine. She currently lives and practices in Victoria, BC, and lectures and writes extensively for both professional and community audiences on topics including family nutrition, menopause, anxiety and depression, heart disease, cancer, and easing stress. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.
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