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In the old days, parents and doctors used to force cod liver oil on reluctant children. Made from the fermented livers of cod fish, the oil was famously noxious, but its high vitamin A and vitamin D content justified the awful taste. It turns out, however, that those old physicians were doing more good than they knew. In addition to its vitamin content, cod liver oil—like many fish oils—is high in unsaturated fats known as omega-3 fatty acids.

Unlike saturated fats, which are found in high levels in many baked goods and red meat, unsaturated fats such as the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA have powerful health benefits. Research in adults has shown that omega-3 fatty acids can help slow or prevent heart disease, support healthy eyes, and support a healthy brain. But does that mean you should be giving your children fish oil supplements?

Not necessarily. As with other nutrients, the ideal way to incorporate healthy omega-3 fatty acids into your child’s life is through diet. Instead of giving fish oil supplements, encourage your children to eat healthy cold-water fish such as salmon, herring, and sardines. For younger children, many formulas have been fortified with omega-3 fatty acids, and breast milk is naturally designed as a complete and perfect food, with plenty of omega-3 fatty acids.

What about mercury contamination?

If you do encourage more fish, however, you should be aware of the recommendations about eating cold-water fish. Many ocean fish have higher-than-recommended levels of mercury in their meat. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends that kids eat no more than two servings per week. Fish with the highest amounts of mercury, such as swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish, should be avoided altogether.

Other sources of fish, such as fish sticks and canned chunk light tuna, are low in mercury but don’t supply many omega-3 fatty acids. Solid white albacore canned tuna, on the other hand, provides a higher dose of omega-3s, but also tends to be higher in mercury, so the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends limiting a child’s intake of solid white tuna to one serving per week.

Fish oil supplements

If the idea of getting your child to eat herring seems far-fetched, don’t worry: you’re not alone. Many children don’t like the taste of fish. If you child is one of these, ask your pediatrician about introducing fish oil supplements as a last resort or look for fortified foods. Many foods—some infant formulas, eggs, milk, soy beverages, juice, yogurt, bread, cereal, and margarine—are fortified with omega-3s. Look for products that contain at least 50 milligrams of DHA per serving. Omega-3 fatty acids can also be found in walnuts, flax oil, and borage oil.

Most fish oil supplements are virtually mercury-free because manufacturers distill the oil to remove contaminants, but they can still taste fishy. They come in liquid, soft chews, and soft-gel form, and some are fruit-flavored which helps. Plain-flavored fish oils can be poured over steamed vegetables or added to a smoothie, but don’t use them on hot foods as the heat can destroy the omega-3 fatty acids.

Takeaways

  • Fish oil contains omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to enhance brain and eye development.
  • It’s best to get omega-3 fatty acids from food sources, including cold water fish, walnuts, borage oil and flax seed oil.
  • Fish oil supplements should contain at least 50 mg of DHA (a kind of omega-3 fatty acid).
  • Because of concerns over mercury contamination, the Environmental Protection Agency recommends no more than 2 servings of fish per week for children.

References

  1. Psychology Today. “Fish Oil Makes Smarter Babies.”
  2. Mayo Clinic. “Omega-3 fatty acids, fish oil, alpha-linolenic acid.”

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