September 2010: Brain Fuel For Your Kids: Omega-3 Fatty Acids

The kids are back in school, and it is time again for homework, tests and busy days.  If you are like me, you might feel the increasing pressure to keep the kids academically ready, knowing their spelling words each week and practicing their math facts on a daily basis.  Is there anything that we as parents can do from a meal-planning standpoint to help our kids build their brains and keep their energy levels high?  The answer is yes, and the “how” is through making sure that our children get enough Omega 3 fatty acids in their diets.  I first got interested in the importance of Omega 3 fatty acids when I was pregnant with my first child, Elena, and I read the book “What’s Going on in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life” by Lise Eliot, Ph.D.  This book is a fascinating read about the development of the human brain and highlighted the role of Omega 3s before they became a mainstream topic.

For this month’s article, I asked dietetic intern and student Tyler Horstman to tell us all the details about Omega 3s, why they are important, how much kids need, and how we can make sure that we are providing enough in our kids’ diets.  I’ve included links to three Omega 3-rich recipes (with fish), and Tyler has given us three examples of how you can plan breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks to ensure adequate intake of Omega 3s (even without fish).  Don’t feel like you need to eat fish every night of the week (in fact, doctors recommend fish about two times a week optimally).  And you don’t have to have the perfect meal plan every day!  Even an avocado is a great place to start.  Have fun!

The Importance of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
by Tyler Horstman

Omega-3 fats are crucial for a healthy body.  They nourish the brain, eyes, joints, and digestive tract, but these fats are even more important for the body of a growing child.  The body needs these fats so dearly, it’s no wonder omega-3 fats are called essential fatty acids.  The term “essential” actually comes from the fact that the body cannot produce these fatty acids on its own; they must be consumed in the diet.  However, as these fats exist in so few foods, making sure that our kids get enough can be tricky, especially if you have a picky eater in your house!

What are omega-3 fatty acids?

Saturated fats, monounsaturated fats, and polyunsaturated fats are the three types of fat found in the diet.  Omega-3 fats are a type of polyunsaturated fat found primarily in fish, but they can also be found in eggs and milk, cheese, and meat from grass-fed cows.  What we call omega-3 fats are actually two types of fat: DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid).

Like all fats, DHA and EPA are digested and circulated throughout the body, where they participate in various chemical reactions.  When the body needs to use a fat for a particular reaction, it grabs the nearest fat it can use, whether that fat is an omega-3 fat or a saturated fat.  If it grabs a non-omega-3 fat, this reaction might increase inflammation or produce harmful by-products.  If omega-3 is used in the same reaction, however, the net result will be a decrease in inflammation and an overall cleaner reaction.  This is why the total amount of omega-3 in the diet is not as important as the ratio of omega-3 to other fats in your diet.

This ratio is important because the more omega-3 you have relative to other fats, the greater the likelihood that the omega-3 can work its magic.  The most common fat that your body uses instead of omega-3 is the significantly easier to find (in the standard “western” diet) omega-6.  Omega-6 is found in most common oils used in food manufacturing, such as vegetable, soybean, peanut, canola and corn oil.  Processed foods such as potato chips and other bagged snacks are common culprits that can reduce the effectiveness of omega-3 in the body.

Historical evidence suggests that the ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is close to 1; that is, one gram of omega-3 should be eaten for every gram of omega-6.  The modern “western” diet in the US, for contrast, provides a ratio of almost twenty times more omega-6 than omega-3!

Vegetarian sources of omega-3, such as walnuts and flaxseeds, also provide omega-3 as ALA (alpha-linolenic acid).  ALA is converted to DHA and EPA in the body, but the process is slow and inefficient, making fish the optimal food for dietary omega-3.

There is some concern about the mercury levels in a diet very high in fish.  Currently, there is no consensus about the benefits versus the drawbacks of such a diet.  However, most experts currently agree that eating fish two to three times a week is beneficial, so long as smaller fish are eaten.  Larger fish such as swordfish, shark, or king mackerel have a much higher amount of mercury in their bodies, due to eating so many smaller fish.  Smaller fish such as sardines and anchovies have very low amounts.  So when choosing fish, think lower on the food chain (not the big fish that eat many smaller fish!).

Why do parents need to make sure their kids get enough omega-3?

Omega-3 is vital for maintaining good health in adults.  New research is showing that it is even more important for growing bodies.  Although many problems caused by malnutrition in childhood can be reversed, some are permanent, making good nutrition early on a necessity for the wellness of that child throughout their life.  Here are just a few examples of how omega-3 can benefit your child:

  • Omega-3 is found in very high concentrations in the brain, where DHA is abundant.  Studies show that omega-3 can lower the chance of depression and ADHD in children.
  • A diet high in omega-3 may improve overall eye health in growing children.
  • Omega-3 reduces the inflammatory response in the body, keeping your child’s heart healthy.
  • Omega-3 at a young age may reduce the incidence of asthma later in life.

How much omega-3 do kids need?

As mentioned above, the total amount of omega-3 isn’t as important as the ratio of omega-3 to other fats.  Shooting for 1g to 1.5g per day is a great place to start.  While many parents choose to include an omega-3 supplement in their child’s diet, simply incorporating omega-3 rich foods into your usual meal plan can work just as well.  Here is a breakdown of common sources of omega-3:

Food Amount of Omega-3 per 3oz serving
Salmon 1.9g
Tuna 1.5g
Canned Sardines 1.5g
Canned Salmon 1.0g
Canned Tuna 0.5g
Crabmeat, Clams 0.3g
Omega-3 Enriched Egg 0.3g per egg
Jumbo Shrimp 0.15g
Cod, Lobster 0.15g
Regular, non-enriched egg 0.06g per egg
Grass-Fed Beef 0.2g
Milk from Grass-Fed Cows (8oz glass) 0.2-0.3g

Vegetarian Sources:
Omega-3 Content
Walnuts (1/4 cup) 2.5g
Flaxseeds (1 oz) 1.8g
Tofu (4 oz) 0.3g
Omega-3 enriched bread* 0.02 to 0.05g per slice
Chinese Broccoli
(1 cup)
Frozen Spinach
(1/2 cup)
Arugula, Raw 0.2g

It can be inconvenient that omega-3 is more difficult to get through non-animal sources, as few plants have the ability to make this long-chain fatty acid.  However, you can find flaxseed in a variety of products such as bread, granola, oatmeal and cereal.

*Kathryn’s comment:  My kids eat Natural Ovens (Organic Whole Grain & Flax) bread, which has 350 milligrams of Omega-3 fatty acids in each slice, or 700 milligrams (0.7 grams) for a sandwich.  I can feel confident on those mornings when I made French toast with this type of bread and an Omega-3 enriched egg, for an Omega-3 count of 0.65 grams for a one slice serving (0.35 from the bread and 0.3 from the egg).  Try this with your kids—French toast is always a kid-friendly favorite!

Strategies for including omega-3 in your child’s diet

Obviously, including fish in your child’s diet is the most straightforward method to increase their omega-3 intake.  Here are a few yummy and kid-friendly fish recipes:

Or, if your child doesn’t like fish, here are a few tips to increase their omega-3 intake:

  • Walnuts make a great on-the-go snack.  Keeping a baggie of walnuts handy can be an omega-3-rich alternative at snacktime.
  • Switching regular eggs for omega-3 eggs can start your child’s day with almost half of their recommended omega-3!
  • Flaxseeds or flaxseed oil can easily be added to cereals, oatmeal, applesauce, or any of your child’s favorite foods.

For infants, many studies are now suggesting that it is safe to introduce your baby to fish after 6-7 months of age, just be sure to check with your pediatrician first.  Here is a great website to get you started:

A healthy day of Omega 3s

What would an example day of meals and snacks look like for a parent that is successfully providing the right amount of Omega 3s (and balance with other types of fats?).  We’ve shown three example days’ meal plans that add up to 2-3g of Omega 3.  Two meal plans have fish on the menu, the other does not.

Example day #1

Meal/snack Type of food eaten and amount Omega 3 consumed
Breakfast Two omega-3 eggs 0.6g
Lunch Turkey sandwich on flaxseed bread 0.1g
Dinner 3oz salmon 1.9g
Total 2.6g

Example day #2

Meal/snack Type of food eaten and amount Omega 3 consumed
Breakfast Oatmeal with sprinkle of flaxseeds 0.9g
Lunch Pasta with baked tofu 0.3
Dinner Grass-fed hamburger (4-5oz), side salad with 1/8 cup walnuts 1.5g
Total 2.7g

Example day #3

Meal/snack Type of food eaten and amount Omega 3 consumed
Breakfast Cereal with cup of grass-fed milk, sprinkle on flaxseeds (1/4 oz) 0.8g
Lunch Tuna salad sandwich 0.5g
Mid-afternoon snack Spinach, arugula and Chinese broccoli salad 0.7g
Dinner 3 jumbo shrimp 0.6g
Total 2.6g

Remember that it is not just the total Omega 3 that is important—it is the ratio of Omega-3 to other fats in your child’s diet — that is of greatest importance.  So if your child consumes a box of crackers high in trans fat or Omega-6 or 9 fatty acids (such as most animal crackers, or even saltines!), all your great menu planning has lost its effectiveness.  The biggest culprits providing these “bad” fats are fast food, most breaded frozen foods, store-bought baked goods such as cookies, cakes and pies, chips and crackers, and even some breakfast cereals.

Experimenting with Omega 3 rich foods (and learning to balance them with other types of fats) can be a fun way to improve your child’s health!

How do you make sure your kids get their Omega 3s? Please share your ideas with us in the comments section below!

Be well,


Back copies of Healthy Kids Ideas Exchange are always available online.

Don’t forget to check out the recent posts on the Garden Tales and Simple Dinner Ideas Blogs!

Garden Tales:   a seasonal adventure for you and your kids to enjoy all the wonderful bounty of edible and ornamental gardens.

Simple Dinners Ideas: on-going inspiration for easy meals your entire family will enjoy.


This column is for information only, and no part of its contents should be construed as medical advice, diagnosis, recommendation or endorsement by the author. You should always ask your physician for his or her recommendation before starting any new health-related activity.


  1. This comment just came in from a friend:
    “Kathryn this was a great article, thank you!

    I’m wondering how to find out where to get grass fed milk? How do you know if it’s grass fed? I’m assuming just because it’s organic it’s not necessarily grass fed?

    If you have any advice let me know, thanks!
    Hey Jackie!
    I buy Grasspoint farms milk. I get it through Peapod, but I would imagine many stores would have a brand that is grass fed.

    Organic doesn’t necessarily mean grass fed (since other feed can be organic). Let me know what local brand you find, (if it is different than Grasspoint farms)

    Kathryn– Just found Grasspoint and Nature’s Farm at Jewel. Nature’s Farm is on sale $2.99 and has coupons for $1-$2 off! Just tried Nature’s Farm and it’s good so I will stock up!

  2. From Dr. Sears:
    Oftentimes parents bring their child to me for consultation on learning or behavioral problems at school. They typically open their concern with, “We and our child’s teacher believe he has A.D.D….” After taking a nutritional history, I often reply, “Your child doesn’t have A.D.D., he has N.D.D.” (A term Dr. Bill coined) Obviously, they look surprised. They don’t know what N.D.D. is, but it doesn’t sound like something they want their child to have. I go on to explain that what I mean by N.D.D. is a nutrition deficit disorder. In my experience, many children described as having A.D.D. lose this tag once their N.D.D. is treated. Here’s how:
    Since the brain is 60% fat, it stands to reason that growing brains need high-quality fats. Smart fats make the brain grow and perform better. Smart fats, are the omega-3 fatty acids that are found in especially high amounts in seafood. Omega-3 fats are also found in some plants (e.g., flaxseed oil, canola oil, nuts, and seeds), but the omega-3 fats found in plants have to be converted from shorter-chain fatty acids to longer ones before they can be used in the brain. Seafood is the most direct source of long-chain omega 3’s and supplements containing the most important Omega 3, DHA.
    Eat Fish be Smart
    Oceans of recent research show that omega-3 fats make brains healthier, especially the brains of young kids and older adults. Researchers believe that the high levels of omega-3 fats in breast milk help to explain the differences in IQ between children who received human milk in infancy and those who did not. The body uses omega-3 fats to make cell membranes. Omega-3 fats are also needed to make myelin, the insulation around nerves, and to help neurotransmitters function at the optimal levels. Omega-3 fats are known as essential fatty acids from food. Other types of fats can be manufactured in the body, but the body cannot make essential fatty acids. That is why it is important for growing brains to get adequate amounts of these smart fats from food. If there are not enough “smart” fats available to make brain cells and other key substances, the body uses lesser-quality fats and produce s lesser-quality cells. The “dumb” fats (known as replacement fatty acids), the kind that come from the trans fats in hydrogenated oils, clog the receptors in the cell membrane, and the brain cell does not function well.
    Neurotransmitters, the biochemical messengers that carry information from one brain cell to another, fit into receptors on cell membranes like a key fits into a lock. The keys and the locks must match. If the cell membrane is composed of the right fats, the locks and keys match. But if the receptors are clogged with the wrong fats, the neurotransmitter keys won’t fit, and the brain-cell function suffers. Omega-3 fats keep the receptors open so the neurotransmitters fit and the brain can function optimally.
    New Studies Show
    In the past few years several studies showed that growing children diagnosed with A.D.D. who were given Omega-3 supplements, especially DHA improved their attention and learning.
    Eat Fish, Learn and Behave Better
    In order for kids to learn they have to be able to concentrate. Studies show that omega-3 fats help the brain pay attention and make connections. Researchers at Purdue University found that boys with A.D.H.D. (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) had lower levels of omega-3 fats, especially DHA, the main omega-3 fat found in fish. The boys with the most abnormal behavior had the lowest levels of DHA. School-age children with the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their blood had the fewest learning problems. In addition, students who were given DHA supplements prior to exams showed less hostility and aggression during this time of stress.

  3. kathryn says:

    From Bonnie and Steve Minsky of Nutritional Concepts:
    Fish oil reduced adipose (fat) macrophages, increased capillaries, and reduced MCP-1 expression in insulin-resistant humans and in macrophages and adipocytes in a Diabetes study. Macrophages are inflammatory cells.

    Treatment with fish oil in severely obese nondiabetic patients, which was well tolerated, decreased the gene expression of most analyzed inflammatory genes in subcutaneous adipose (fat) tissue and increased production of antiinflammatory eicosanoids in visceral adipose tissue and subcutaneous adipose tissue. In comparison with control subjects who received butterfat, circulating interleukin-6 and triglyceride concentrations decreased significantly in the fish oil group, according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study. These effects may be beneficial in the long-term treatment of obesity.

    Significant positive effects from fish oil supplementation at 18 months of age were observed from 3 to 5 years on rule-learning and inhibition tasks, the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test at 5 years, and the Weschler Primary Preschool Scales of Intelligence at 6 years. The data suggest that, although the effects of fish oil may not always be evident on standardized developmental tasks at 18 months, significant effects may emerge later on more specific or fine-grained tasks. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition results imply that studies of nutrition and cognitive development should be powered to continue through early childhood.

  4. kathryn says:

    A momentous study published last week in JAMA Neurology showed that amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) could possibly be prevented or at least the onset of the awful disease delayed with omega-3 fatty acids.

    Subjects who consumed the most foods high in omega-3 fatty acids were associated with a reduced risk for ALS. Consumption of both α-linolenic acid and fish omega-3s contributed to this inverse association.

  5. kathryn says:

    And now, good news for fish eaters as related to colon cancer: Patients recovering from colon cancer can take preventive measures to reduce their chances of a relapse. People who ate fish LESS than twice a week and were active for LESS than one hour per week had a 2.5 times greater risk of suffering from colon cancer recurrence.

  6. kathryn says:

    And good news for Alzheimer patients or those at-risk: Finally, a first-of-its-kind study from Alzheimer’s & Dementia indicated that subjects taking fish oil supplements had significantly with less brain shrinkage, thus conserving cognition.

  7. Kathryn - HKIE says:

    recently appeared in JAMA: “Long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are present in cold-water fish such as herring or salmon and are commercially available in capsules (over the counter and by prescription), can decrease fasting triglyceride concentrations 20-50% by reducing hepatic triglyceride production and increasing triglyceride clearance. With long-term intake, they may increase HDL-C.”

    Triglycerides are finally receiving their due for heart and diabetes prevention. Fish oil is an amazing therapy for lowering high triglycerides.

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