This Is How Omega-3 Supports Your Child From Pregnancy And Beyond
21 min read
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Many parents are familiar with the importance of feeding their children a healthy diet that’s choc-a-block full of essential vitamins and minerals. After all, good nutrition helps to support all manner of important bodily functions as our little ones grow, play and explore the world around them.
But, what about the role of other essential nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids?
This family of healthy fats are particularly important for supporting your little one’s healthy brain development in the womb and beyond.
You may know that fish are a common dietary source of omega-3s, but do you know why they’re important for kids? What are the different types? And, why are they important for your little one?
Keep reading to discover all this and more, or use the links below to jump to the information you’re looking for:
As the name suggests, omega-3 fatty acids are a group of fats. However, although you might think of fats as having negative functions within the body, omega-3s play a range of important roles in supporting our health and wellbeing.
This is because omega-3s are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), which are considered ‘essential fats’ due to their contributions to maintaining our good health.
Like many other essential nutrients (including minerals and some vitamins), our bodies are unable to produce omega-3 fatty acids and we must source them from the foods that we eat (1).
If you’ve been looking to the role of omega-3 in supporting your child’s health, you may have heard of two other fatty acids: omega-6s and omega-9s.
Although they share a name, these fats differ in both their chemical makeup and dietary sources. Discover the difference between omega-3, 6 and 9 fatty acids:
Perhaps the most well know omega family of fatty acids, there are three main types of omega-3s. They are alpha linoleic acid (ALA), docosahexanoic acid (DHA), and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
The dietary sources of omega-3s differ depending on the type. ALA is mostly found in plant-based foods while DHA and EPA can be found in animal products such as oily fish.
Like omega-3 fatty acids, omega-6s are polyunsaturated fatty acids. They are also considered ‘essential fats’, as our bodies cannot produce them.
But, while we may need to make extra effort to eat specific foods that are dietary sources of omega-3s (such as fatty fish and particular plant-based foods) omega-6s are typically abundant in the average Australian diet.
Vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, meat and eggs contain linoleic acid, which is the most common omega-6 fatty acid.
Unlike omega-3s and 6s, omega-9 fatty acids are monounsaturated fatty acids. They also aren’t classed as ‘essential’ because our bodies can produce them.
Omega-9 fatty acids such as oleic acid are mostly found in plant-based foods such as avocados, almonds, olives and olive oil.
There are three types of fatty acids that belong to the omega-3 family. These are alpha linoleic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
Discover the difference between them, why it’s important to get enough of all three, and dietary sources (1-6):
Alpha linoleic acid (ALA) is an omega-3 fatty acid that can be predominantly found in plant-based foods. In particular, flaxseeds and walnuts are both sources of ALA.
Conversely, DHA and EPA are omega-3 fatty acids that are found in animal products, predominantly fatty fish.
Our bodies can convert ALA into DHA and EPA, however only in very small amounts, which cannot meet the body’s needs. As such, it’s important that we consume enough DHA and EPA in our diets
While both of these omega-3s are important, DHA’s role in brain development is particularly well established.
DHA is the primary fatty acid in the brain and eye retina. In fact, it makes up 97% of all omega-3 fatty acids in the brain and 93% in the retina.
During pregnancy and their first years of life, DHA is deposited in your child’s brain, which is important for supporting their brain development and cognitive function.
Omega-3s are important for maintaining our health and wellbeing. Specifically, DHA and EPA play important roles in supporting the brain and nervous system’s healthy development and function.
As childhood is a period of rapid brain growth and development, it’s important for your little one to maintain adequate supply of these polyunsaturated fatty acids during this time.
Your child’s brain is more responsive to change while it is developing than it is during any other stage of life.
This means experiences in their early years (such as omega-3 intake) may have the greatest influence on their brain development (2, 7-10).
DHA is an important essential fatty acid during pregnancy for a baby’s fetal development. As a result, a mother’s nutritional demands may increase during this time.
Beginning in the second half of pregnancy and continuing through the first two years of life, a growing child rapidly accumulates DHA. This coincides with a period of rapid brain development.
It’s estimated that between 67-75mg of DHA is accumulated in utero each day but this depends solely on the mother’s intake.
It’s also worth noting that a woman’s body prioritises the baby’s DHA needs, and preferentially transports DHA from the mother to her child via placental transfer.
To support both her growing bub’s needs as well as to maintain her own adequate levels, a pregnant mother will likely need to consume more DHA than a non-pregnant woman (5,11,12,13).
During pregnancy, a woman’s seafood intake is restricted to just two servings each week. This varies depending on the mercury content of the fish, as specified by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ).
The FSANZ guidelines for fish intake during pregnancy recommends (14):
As DHA and EPA are predominantly found in seafood, it’s likely that most pregnant women do not get adequate amounts of these omega-3 fatty acids due to these restrictions.
Would you like to learn more about which foods to avoid during pregnancy? If so, you can find helpful information here.
If you have any concerns about your nutrition during pregnancy, talk to your health professional. They will be able to take into account your individual needs and provide tailored advice accordingly.
Fish is perhaps the best-known source of omega-3 fatty acids as DHA and EPA are predominately found in oily fish such as salmon, sardines and cod liver.
Although ALA may be found in plant-based foods such as canola oil, walnuts and flaxseed, the body’s ability to convert this into DHA and EPA is limited. As such, regular consumption of dietary sources of these omega-3s (such as fatty fish) is helpful for meeting our nutritional needs.
The DHA and EPA content of fish may vary depending on the water they live in and whether they are freshwater or farmed fish (15).
As we know, seafood is a prominent dietary source of omega-3s. However, it’s also common for children who are going through a fussy phase to avoid or reject fish and other seafoods.
Although you do your best to feed your little one a varied, healthy diet, picky eating may make it trickier than usual to help them reach their omega-3 requirements.
In fact, research suggests as many as 80% of Australian children don’t eat any fish or seafood as part of their diet (16), and that 40-50% don’t consume adequate amounts of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (17).
This is also echoed in the broader Australian population, with just 20% of us meeting our recommended omega-3 intake and 10% of women of childbearing age getting adequate amounts of DHA (18).
And, although our bodies can convert very limited amounts of ALA into EPA and DHA, this process is widely considered inefficient for meeting our daily needs (3,11).
The best way to support your little one’s omega-3 levels is to feed them a healthy, balanced diet that contains food sources of ALA, EPA and DHA.
To help your child reach their recommended intake of EPA and DHA, incorporating oily fish into their meals may help to support their dietary intake.
But, how many servings of fish should they consume each week and what are some kid-friendly ways to prepare and serve it?
If you’re looking to support your little one’s omega-3 intake, you may be wondering just how many serving of fish they should be eating throughout the week.
Luckily, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) have clear guidelines when it comes to fish consumption.
However, if you have any concerns about your child’s nutrition, it’s important to visit your health professional.
FSANZ’s guidelines for fish intake recommends 2-3 serves of fish or seafood each week, excluding shark (flake), swordfish, marlin, broadbill, orange roughy (deep sea perch) and catfish (14).
If your little one is going through a period of fussy eating, or just isn’t a big fan of eating fish, these handy hints may help you sneak it into their meals:
Ultimately, every child is different and has their own unique taste preferences. So, don’t be discouraged if your little one doesn’t love your first attempts at fish-based cuisine.
The beauty of tinned varieties is their versatility. Get creative and try wiggling some extra omega-3s into your child’s diet by adding fish to their favourite foods.
Remember, if you have any concerns about your child’s or your own nutrition, talk to a health professional.
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