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Essential Fats for Children’s Health

As their name suggests, essential fatty acids (EFAs) are a critical component of children’s health. Learn why, where to find them, the difference between omega-3s and omega-6s, and how to easily incorporate them into your child’s diet. Dr. Marie Rodriguez is a licensed naturopathic physician who uses nutritional counseling, herbal medicine, homeopathy and energy medicine to treat the whole person.

Essential fatty acids, also called EFAs, play very important roles in the body:  
  • They compose cell membranes, help cells to uptake nutrients and remove wastes, and aid in cell to cell communication.
  • They help to reduce inflammation, which assists with the body’s immune system.
  • They are also needed for proper nutrition in growing children as they optimize neurological functioning.  Fetuses and breast-fed infants require EFAs from maternal nutrition.
  • Because the body doesn’t make them on their own, we need to get EFAs from supplementation or eating food sources: plants and cold water fish.
Omega-3 EFAs and omega-6 EFAs are sources of EPA and DHA, which are vital for children and brain development:
  • Omega-3 EFAs come from cold-water fish such as salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel, black cod, and bluefish.  Certain plant sources like flax, walnut, pumpkin and hemp seeds contain the precursor to omega-3 EFAs.
  • The precursor to omega-3 EFAs is called alpha linolenic acid or ALA, which a healthy human body will convert into EPA and DHA.
  • Omega-6 EFAs are found in seeds, nuts, and the oils extracted from them.
  • The American diet is generally deficient in omega-3 EFAs and excessive in omega-6 EFAs.
  • EPA and DHA are important for people to supplement with as not everyone has the enzymes to convert ALA from plant sources into them.
Research shows EFAs are beneficial for learning and immune function in children:
  • The supplementation of DHA to breast-feeding mothers for four months following birth improved parameters of cognitive function such as vocabulary and comprehension in the infants.
  • A study on Danish infants who were either fed cow's milk or infant formula alone, or supplemented with fish oil showed the infants who supplemented with fish oil had improved immune function.
Both dietary sources and supplementation are important for children in order to get the essential fatty acids they need:
  • It is difficult to get all of the essential fatty acids from diet alone, and therefore it is important to supplement the diet with EFAs in either liquid or capsule form.
  • New moms can supplement their newborns with a couple of drops of fish oil daily to ensure that they are getting adequate DHA.
  • Choose raw nuts over roasted as high heat can destroy the EFAs in nuts.
  • Adding flaxseeds to salads and vegetables is a great way to increase the uptake of ALA in a child’s diet.