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Ensuring children get adequated healthy fats, especially omega-3s, can improve long term health

Young kids not getting enough healthy fats

16 September, 2013

Natural Health News — In the first study to closely examine the polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) intake among US children under the age of 5, researchers have found what might be a troubling deficit in the diet of many youngsters.

PUFAs are essential to human health. A proper ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 PUFAs plays an important role in cell function, inflammation, eye development and neural functioning.

However, the ideal dietary intake of PUFAs for young children is unclear. Infants often receive significant amounts of key PUFAs through breast milk during the first year of life; and these days some infant formulas also contain added fatty acids.  But what happens after that is not well studied.

So Sarah Keim, PhD, principal investigator in the Center for Biobehavioral Health at The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, and her colleagues, used data on nearly 2500 children age 12 to 60 months from the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, to estimate the average intake of PUFAs in the diet for children between infancy and kindergarten.

Too many omega-6s

“The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 intake was high – about 10. Some experts use this as an indicator of diet quality, with a high ratio being less healthy,” says Dr. Keim. “In addition, intake of a key fatty acid known as DHA in children 12 to 60 months of age was low –  lower than what infants generally consume – and it did not increase with age.”

Dr. Keim’s study published in Maternal and Child Nutrition, is also the first to examine the primary dietary sources of PUFA intake among children under the age of 5 and to examine age, race and ethnicity in relation to fish intake in this age group. Fish are an excellent source of fatty acids, such as DHA and EPA, and were shown to be the richest sources of PUFAs in children’s diets.

“Only about 54% of children ate fish at least once in the previous month. Non-Hispanic black children were more likely than non-Hispanic white children to have eaten fish,” says Dr. Keim. “Because diet can be an important contributor to many diseases, it’s important to understand how such disparities might contribute to disease risk.”

The swift physical and neurological development during this period of childhood may mean that variations in PUFA intake could have important implications for growth, she adds.

Figuring out what kids need

At present, there is no official dietary recommendation in the US for DHA and EPA intake or supplementation among children, although the Institute of Medicine has issued what they call a “reasonable intake” level of two 3-oz servings of fish per week for children.

“According to our research, however, children are clearly not consuming this much fish,” says Dr. Keim.

In addition, the researchers found that overall intake of key fatty acids, such as DHA and EPA, among US children is only a fraction of what is regularly consumed by young children in certain other countries, including Canada.

Other studies suggest that similarly low intakes exist in kids age 5 and older. By incorporating key omega-3 PUFAs into a child’s diet at a very early age, Dr. Keim says, it may be more likely to become part of a lifelong diet.

Dr. Keim hopes her work will contribute to a more detailed understanding of the diets of young children and will motivate health professionals to start considering the specific nutritional needs of children for healthy growth and development.

Ideally, she says, she would like to see families expose their children to a variety of fresh foods as soon as they are old enough to eat solids.

“Dietary habits can form very early, so starting with a balanced diet may have long-lasting effects for children’s health.” According to Dr. Keim, this balanced diet should include fish and other good sources of healthy fatty acids.