I’m excited to have Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD as our expert this month. She is an award-winning registered dietitian, with a nutrition counseling practice in Newport Beach, California. She has written several books including The Ultimate Omega-3 Diet and Intuitive Eating. She is a highly respected dietitian.
“Children require omega-3 fatty acids the same way they require vitamins,” Tribole says when asked the one thing she wants parents to know about omega-3 fatty acids. “But parents need to understand that it’s not just DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) their children need, it’s also EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid).”
The problem with fortified products on the market, she explains, is they contain only DHA. And children need both. Even though DHA is the star player, DHA and EPA work together in a complex process.
In her book, The Ultimate Omega-3 Diet, Tribole argues that DHA is needed for brain development the same way calcium is required for bone growth. She says that each brain cell requires DHA for proper development. When DHA isn’t present in adequate quantities during rapid brain growth (early childhood), emotional and intellectual development can be affected.
“Kids need to eat fish at least twice a week to get the recommended amount of DHA.” Tribole says. “Parents can try fish tacos, tuna fish sandwiches or salmon patties with their kids.”
While her son was growing up, Tribole took him out for “Fishy Thursdays” and he’d try all kinds of different fish at restaurants. Now he loves fish.
“Every time the FDA comes out with a warning about fish, consumption goes down, which is too bad,” she adds. “If parents stick to low-mercury sources of seafood like salmon, trout, halibut, light canned tuna and cod, they will be fine.”
Should children who don’t eat fish regularly supplement with DHA/EPA? Tribole says yes and based on international guidelines she recommends children 2-3 years old get 433mg of DHA/EPA with a minimum of 145mg of DHA, 4-6 years old get 600mg of DHA/EPA with a minimum of 200mg of DHA and 7 years and older including adults get 650 combined with a minimum of 220 DHA. For pregnant women the DHA minimum is 300mg. Check the supplement facts label to see how much DHA/EPA is in each serving.
As for recommended supplements, Tribole put together this chart on her website listing quality products categorized by cost. Supplements especially for kids include Coromega and Nordic Naturals. For another kids’ supplement, check out my review of Carlsons for Kids fish oil.
What about vegetarian children? Tribole explains that plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids such as flaxseed and walnuts do not contain DHA/EPA and convert very small amounts of DHA in the body. Most lacto-ovo vegetarians (consumes milk and eggs) don’t have problems taking fish oil supplements but vegans may be against it. There are algae-based DHA supplements but they don’t contain EPA.
Tribole emphasizes the importance of lowering omega-6 fatty acids in the diet. “I like to compare omega-6 fatty acids to sodium in the diet,” she says. “Both are essential nutrients but too much can take a toll on health.”
Because omega-6 (see sources below) and omega-3 fatty acids compete for the same limited enzymes, too much omega-6 can crowd out omega-3s. And too much omega-6 fatty acids in the body can increase one’s risk of inflammation, increasing the risk of developing chronic diseases.
Due to changes in the food supply, she explains in her book, we eat 10-20 times the omega-6 fatty acids our ancestors ate.
“To cut back I tell families to start with three items – margarine, salad dressing and spreads like mayonnaise.” she says. “These products are made with omega-6 vegetable oils such as soybean, cottonseed and corn oil.”
Vegetable oils low in omega-6 fats include canola and olive oil. She advises families to choose canola-based margarines like Canoleo or Canola Harvest, make their own salad dressing with canola or olive oil and buy a canola-based mayonnaise.
When asked other ways families can increase their intake of omega-3 fatty acids she says they can buy dairy products that come from “pasture-fed” or “grass fed” animals – and being organic is no guarantee. When animals are fed their natural diet of grass instead of a corn-grain diet, she explains, they naturally have higher levels of omega-3s and lower levels of omega-6. One example Tribole provides is Straus Family Creamery which sells pasture-fed dairy products.
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For more on what to feed your kids see our Nutrition for Children section.