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Essential fatty acids are crucial for children's good health and development. Read on to find out which essential fatty acids your child needs, which sources are the best, and how to avoid getting too little or too much.
Why essential fatty acids are important
Essential fatty acids, or EFAs, are types of fat that are essential in the diet because they can't be produced by the body. These fats help build cells, regulate the nervous system, strengthen the cardiovascular system, build immunity, and help the body absorb nutrients. EFAs are also vital for healthy brain function and vision.
Essential fatty acids include omega-6 (linoleic acid) and omega-3 (linolenic acid). Both are polyunsaturated fats that help lower cholesterol, reduce inflammation, and keep the heart healthy.
Most Americans consume a lot more omega-6 fats than omega-3 fats. Some experts maintain that an imbalance of omega-6 fats to omega-3 fats can impair immune and inflammatory responses in the body and may contribute to such illnesses as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Other experts and organizations, including the American Heart Association, say striving for balance isn't important. Instead, they simply recommend boosting the amount of omega-3 in your diet.
Types of omega-3
There are three main types of omega 3 fatty acids: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
Plant-based ALA is a fatty acid found in flaxseeds, walnuts, kale, and soybean oil. When consumed, the body partially converts ALA into DHA and EPA. (It's also found in some types of animal fat.)
Marine-based DHA and EPA can be found in fatty fish, including salmon, mackerel, sardines, rainbow trout, and herring.
Omega-3s contribute to health in different ways. For example, DHA is critical to brain and eye development. This is why infant formula is fortified with DHA and why pregnant and breastfeeding women are encouraged to get DHA in their diet, either from a food source or a supplement.
Experts say both vegetable and fish omega-3s are good for your health, but no one knows for sure if ALA has all the health benefits associated with DHA and EPA. Since plant-based omega-3 only partially converts to DHA and EPA, consuming fatty fish like salmon is important.
To make the most of all the health benefits of omega-3s, experts say to get both plant- and marine-based omega-3s.
Omega-6 and omega-3: How much does my child need?
Ages 1 to 3 years:
- 7,000 milligrams (mg), or 7 grams, of omega-6 daily
- 700 mg, or 0.7 grams, of omega-3 daily
Ages 4 to 8 years:
- 10,000 mg, or 10 grams, of omega-6 daily
- 900 mg, or 0.9 grams, of omega-3 daily
Omega-6 fats are usually plentiful in the diet, and it's likely you only need to focus on making sure your child is getting adequate omega-3s. (Many omega-6 fats come from processed foods that contain oils such as soybean oil.)
Your child doesn't have to get enough essential fatty acids every day. Instead, aim to get the recommended amount as an average over the course of a few days or a week.
The best sources of essential fatty acids
Good sources of omega-3s include:
- 1 teaspoon flaxseed oil: 2,395 mg (not recommended for cooking but good for dressings)
- 1 tablespoon flax seeds, ground: 1,597 mg
- 1/4 cup English walnuts: 2,293 mg
- 1 tablespoon fortified peanut butter: 4,950 mg
- 1 teaspoon walnut oil: 466 mg
- 1 teaspoon wheat germ oil: 310 mg
- 1 teaspoon soybean oil: 300 mg
- 1 teaspoon canola oil: 411 mg
- 1 fortified egg: 100 mg
- 4 ounces tofu: 300 mg
- 1 ounce salmon: 425 mg
- 1/2 cup soybeans (dried, cooked): 500 mg
- 1/2 cup cooked kale: 100 mg
Look for foods that have been fortified with omega-3s, such as peanut butter, milk, yogurt, orange juice, margarine, and eggs. The omega-3 content will vary with the brand, so read the label. You'll find fortified eggs containing 100 to 200 mg or more omega-3 fatty acids, for example.
Kids may eat more or less than the amounts shown, given their age and appetite. Estimate the nutrient content accordingly.
Most of us get more than enough omega-6 (primarily from vegetable oils). Choosing fats that are rich in omega-3 ensures your child gets enough of that, too. Just a teaspoon of canola oil, for instance, contains about half the omega-3s most children need in a day.
(Note: Nuts and seeds are not appropriate for very small children because they pose a choking hazard. For the same reason, nut butters should be spread thinly.)
Your child will most likely get all the omega-6 fats he needs from processed foods that contain safflower, sunflower, corn, and soybean oils:
- 1 teaspoon safflower oil: 3,360 mg
- 1 teaspoon sunflower oil: 2,966 mg
- 1 teaspoon corn oil: 2,400 mg
- 1 teaspoon soybean oil: 2,300 mg
Can your child get too much essential fatty acids?
No, your child can't get too much of either of the essential fatty acids – but he can get too much fat in his overall diet. As a general rule, choose mostly fats rich in omega-3 and avoid trans fats and saturated fats.
Trans fats – often identified on labels as "partially hydrogenated oils" – are found in many fried foods (like french fries), baked goods (like cookies, pastries, pizza dough), and stick margarines and shortenings. They're also found in some dairy products and meats.
Trans fats raise LDL ("bad") cholesterol and lower HDL ("good") cholesterol. They also increase the risk of developing heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
Saturated fats come mostly from animal sources like meat and dairy – fatty meats, lard, cream, butter, and cheese – and are usually solid at room temperature. They're also found in baked and fried foods and some plant foods, like palm oil, palm kernel oil, and coconut oil.
To learn more see ten other important nutrients for children and how to avoid mercury in fish.