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Why oily fish and kids belong together

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Dr Jane McKenzie PhD RD looks at introducing oily fish into the diets of pre-school children to boost their omega-3 fatty acid intake.

The benefits of long chain omega-3 fatty acids (LC n-3 PUFA of 20 or greater carbon) in childhood are extensively documented.  Not only do they play a key role in optimizing cognitive, behavioral and visual development [1], but they also provide protection against the development of cardiovascular disease [2].  Breast milk provides a reliable source of LC n-3 PUFA during infant development, and the majority of infant formulas are supplemented with these fatty acids in an attempt to mimic the composition of breast milk and offer the same benefits. However, as a child is weaned, reliance on dietary sources of LC n-3 PUFA increases.

Oily fish provide the only significant source of naturally occurring LC n-3 PUFA in our diet. According to the 2009 National Diet and Nutrition Survey [3], however, the average intake of oily fish in children aged 3-5 years is just 24.5g per week, and this is primarily attributed to the relatively few children consuming oily fish on a regular basis.

So why are intakes of oily fish so low in this population? Unfortunately, many negative preconceptions exist which appear to inhibit the incorporation of oily fish into children’s diets. Aside from the apparent strong taste and smell [4], oily fish is considered expensive as there is a lack of confidence about how to prepare and serve it [5]. In addition, despite assurances to the contrary, oily fish are often associated with the ingestion of pollutants which may put health at risk [6]. These influences are particularly pertinent for children growing up in areas of deprivation, where eating habits are already suboptimal and resistant to healthy eating messages [7].

Preschool provides a suitable environment for introducing and reinforcing positive eating habits. In particular, the immediacy of developmental needs for LC n-3 PUFA would suggest that this is the ideal opportunity to influence preferences for oily fish. Therefore, an initiative was set up to develop and evaluate a range of omega-3 fatty acid -rich snack foods, containing oily fish, and then provided to children attending a nursery in a deprived area of Scotland [8]. Acceptability and subsequent consumption of the omega-3 fatty acid-rich snacks was comparable to that of the regular snacks, yet provided a valuable 250mg more of LC n-3 PUFA per portion. These findings indicate that oily fish can be successfully introduced into the diet of preschool children and that such an initiative can contribute to achieving current recommendations for LC n-3 PUFA intake.

Useful Links and references

Dr Jane McKenzie PhD RD, Lecturer in Biochemistry and Metabolism, Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, Scotland



[1] Schuchardt JP, Huss M, Stauss-Grabo M, Hahn A. Significance of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) for the development and behaviour of children. Eur J Pediatr 2010;169:149-64

[2] Adkins Y, Kelley DS. Mechanisms underlying the cardioprotective effects of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. J Nutr Biochem 2010;Apr 9 [Epub ahead of print]

[3]  National Diet and Nutrition Survey. Headline results from year 1 of the rolling programme. London: Food Standards Agency. Accessed online http://www.food.gov.uk/science/dietarysurveys/ndnsdocuments/ndns0809year1. June 22nd 2010

[4]  Sioen I, Huybrechts I, Verbevcke W, Van Camp J, De Henauw S. n-6 and n-3 PUFA intakes in pre-school children in flanders, Belgium. Br J Nutr 2007;98:819-25

[5] McManus A, Burns SK, Howat PA, Cooper L, Fielder L. Factors influencing the consumption of seafood among young children in Perth: a qualitative study. BMC Public Health 2007;7:1-7

[6] Freire C, Ramos R, Lopez-Espinosa M-J, Diez S, Vioque J, Ballister F, Fernández M-F. Hair mercury levels, fish consumption and cognitive development in preschool children from Granada, Spain. Environmental Research 2010;110:96-104

[7] Craig LCA, McNeill G, MacDiarmid JI, Masson LF, Homes BA. Dietary patterns of school-age children in Scotland: association with socio-economic indicators, physical activity and obesity. Br J Nutr 2010;103:319-34

[8] McKenzie J, Scheers Andersson E, Drummond S. The evaluation of an initiative to provide omega-3 rich snacks to preschool children in a deprived area of Edinburgh. Presented at the Scottish Lipid Discussion Group Meeting, Stirling, June 2010

Why oily fish and kids belong together