Ask the Pediatrician
Omega-3s found in many foods, not just supplements
A recent article in the Sunday News (Feb. 3) stated that experts recommend that children get their omega-3 fatty acids from foods and not supplements. However, my 11-year-old daughter is allergic to eggs, shellfish, peanuts and tree nuts, which are the best sources for omega-3s. I have been concerned for some time now about her not receiving the essential fatty acids that she needs, especially since she will soon be entering puberty. I have looked into supplements, but most of them contain fish oil or shellfish. Do you have any suggestions or recommendations for me?
Great question. In addition to the obvious risk of reactions, the other thing we worry about in the setting of food allergies is nutritional deficiencies. Children who are limited in what they can eat often find themselves eating the same "safe" foods all the time and, therefore, do not get the benefits of a diverse diet.
Omega-3s and fatty acids are important in brain development and maintenance, have a protective effect on the heart, help ensure efficient hormone production and usage, and provide many more benefits. They are essential at every age, and many kids and adults do not get enough.
How much is enough is a question that is hotly debated. Based on available evidence, a goal of 500 mg of omega-3 is a target for heart-healthy needs. A goal of 1,000 mg a day is a good target if you are looking for brain effects, such as mood stability and focus.
In my opinion, it is always better to get nutritional needs from food rather than a lot of supplements. Your body is designed to extract these substances from foods and, in many ways, foods are designed to protect essential nutrients from the stomach acid and allow for their absorption at the proper time and place. Vitamins may accomplish this as well, but they also may be processed quickly by the kidneys and just end in, well, the toilet.
There are different kinds of omega-3s and, if you're researching, you will read about different kinds of omega-3 fatty acids, such as DHA and ALA. Current studies suggest all of them have positive health effects and all act as anti-inflammatory chemicals in the body.
Inflammation is the body's response to stress, both physical (high cholesterol) and emotional (high anxiey). Blocking this response with omega-3s has long -lasting effects on both brain and body. DHA is the omega-3 found in fish, meats, dairy and some seeds. Studies suggest that DHA is the most useful fatty acid for supporting the brain.
Americans are not known for their love of fish, but it would be good if we could just become friends with it -- and I am not talking about fish sticks. You did not list fish as one of your daughter's allergies, so it would be my first suggestion. Because of the potential for mercury exposure, you should stay away from shark, tilefish, swordfish and other big-game fishes. But salmon, trout, catfish and white albacore tuna all are great sources of omega-3s and are readily available.
(You can coordinate this health information with a love for the environment by referencing montereybay aquarium.org.)
If you can't convince her to eat fish, here are a few more ideas:
n Grass-fed (as opposed to grain-fed) beef has been shown to have pretty high levels of omega-3s.
n Algae is full of DHA and available in a wide variety of supplements that can be swallowed, chewed or sprinkled. It's also safe for those with shellfish allergies.
n ALA is a little easier to get for kids. Flax, hemp, chia, sesame and pumpkin seeds all are very high in this omega-3. Tofu also is high in ALA and pretty easy to make kid-friendly. These are available in cereals, as powder, in baked goods, on salads and in other forms.
My children like the pumpkin seeds that come roasted with sea salt or spiced up with curry. Make your own version of a snack mix with some of those as the prime ingredient.
Some studies suggest that the body will make DHA out of foods which contain ALA if given enough of them. So another way to compensate is to eat plenty of the above.
Food allergies are a challenge in so many ways. But getting omega-3s can be done with a little creative grocery shopping. Start by explaining to your daughter what these fatty acids do for her and she probably will be motivated (and maybe even excited) to try some new foods when she understands the positive effects.
Dr. Pia Fenimore, of Lancaster Pediatric Associates, answers questions about children's health on the Ask the Expert feature at LancMoms.com. You can submit questions there or by sending an email to Lifestyle@Lnpnews.com.
Cultivating an appreciation for fish is a good first step. If that's not possible, though, there are lots of other sources.