Omega-3 for Kids: What is the right dose?
- Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA play integral roles in children’s neurological and cognitive development, and support the normal function of cells throughout the body
- Current EPA and DHA recommendations are too low to provide sufficient omega-3 support for all children—potentially putting them at risk for suboptimal health outcomes
- 2000 mg of EPA and DHA per day provides sufficient support for most healthy children ages 4 to 12
Getting children to eat healthy is a familiar struggle for many parents—and often a losing battle at that. We all know that kids need adequate nutrients to function optimally, but knowing which nutrients they need (and importantly, how much they need) is often a different story. Fortunately, scientists have done most of the legwork for us.
Decades of research have established the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) for children’s cellular structure and function, neurological and cognitive development, and immune health.1 However, despite their importance for children’s health, recent data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that the EPA and DHA intakes of American children are well below recommended levels.2 As a result, American children are at risk for a number of suboptimal health and developmental outcomes.1
This article discusses the importance of sufficient omega-3 levels during childhood, why established recommendations are likely too low for most children, and how much EPA and DHA a growing child should take to help optimize their development.
EPA and DHA are necessary for normal growth and development
Childhood is characterized by periods of rapid growth and development. Because EPA and DHA are foundational nutrients that take part in many of the structural and functional activities occurring within cells, they are considered necessary for normal growth and development. (See “An Introduction to Omega-3 Fats” for more information on the effects and benefits of omega-3s.) The significance of obtaining sufficient EPA and DHA during childhood is illustrated by research studies showing positive benefits when omega-3s are abundant in supply, and negative consequences when omega-3 levels are lacking.1,3
For example, adequate omega-3 levels help support children’s physical, cognitive, and social development by promoting:
- normal brain and central nervous system function,1,4
- a healthy immune response and respiratory wellness,5
- focus and attention regulation,6,7 and
- cognitive skills such as reading and math.8,9
The relationship between omega-3s and health is further evidenced by studies linking inadequate EPA and DHA levels to:
- difficulties regulating behavior and attention,10,11
- suboptimal cognitive performance,12 and
- an unhealthy immune response to environmental stressors.5,13
Current omega-3 recommendations for children are too low
Given their importance for cellular and developmental health, a number of health organizations provide recommendations for daily omega-3 fatty acid intake.14 These recommendations tend to vary by organization, but typically suggest that adults receive a minimum of 500 mg of EPA+DHA a day, and children receive 150 to 250 mg of EPA and DHA a day.14 However, these recommendations are based on clinical trials using conservative amounts, when more recent research indicates that doses as high as 5000 mg are well tolerated by children and adults, and more effective for increasing omega-3 status than smaller doses.6,15,16
Also, because a number of factors can impede children’s ability to synthesize omega-3 fatty acids (and thus the amount of EPA and DHA needed to maintain optimal cellular health) doses as small as 150 mg to 250 mg are unlikely to make a significant impact on the health of most children. Fortunately, larger doses help buffer against genetic and environmental variables that can affect omega-3 status.16 (For a more detailed discussion of factors impeding omega-3 synthesis and issues concerning dosage, see Omega-3 Dosage: How much EPA and DHA should I take?).
Evidence-based dosage recommendations for children
In light of research showing that: 1) smaller doses are less likely to provide sufficient support for all individuals,16 2) doses larger than 5000 mg are well-tolerated by child and adult populations,6,15 and 3) sufficient EPA and DHA is necessary for normal growth and development, it stands to reason that children would benefit from consuming considerably larger doses than those currently recommended.1,2 More specifically, children between the ages of 4 to 12 would benefit from taking approximately 2000 mg of EPA and DHA a day. This is equivalent to roughly 4-5 servings of fish per week, two highly concentrated fish oil pills a day, or 1 teaspoon of concentrated fish or algae oil a day. Although getting your omega-3 fatty acids from food is preferable to supplements, fish or algae oil can provide a reliable source of EPA and DHA for picky eaters and children with limited access to fish. (See “An Introduction to Omega-3 Fats” for more information about omega-3 foods.)
2000 mg of EPA and DHA per day is supportive for most healthy children
EPA and DHA are foundational nutrients that must be consumed through either food or supplements. The recent finding that American children consume significantly fewer omega-3s than current recommendations (which are already too low) may have long-lasting implications for children’s health and development.1,2 The only conclusive way to determine a child’s individual omega-3 needs is through blood testing and working with their doctor to establish an optimal dose. However, in the absence of testing, the available evidence suggests that ~2000 mg of EPA and DHA a day can provide sufficient omega-3 support for most healthy children.