When I was a young mother working full-time, it was a never-ending battle to find wholesome, nutritious food to put in my kids’ lunch boxes. When I did manage to put a Martha Stewart-like loving touch to their sandwiches, my children would either throw them away or bring them back, half-eaten. They’d always ask the same question: “Why can’t I get cookies and chips like the other kids?”
Between fighting busy schedules, cafeteria vending machines and my children’s desire for junkfood, it was difficult to ensure that my son and daughter ate fresh, full-spectrum foods during school hours. However, there was one family of brain boosting fats that I wanted to make sure my children didn’t miss: omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-3s are important for every cell in the body, but for children, most of the research has focused on their role in promoting healthy brain development. Omega-3s help promote children’s focus, attention, calmness and social skills. In addition, numerous studies have found that getting enough omega-3s can have a positive impact on children’s learning abilities. To name just a few:
One 2013 study by the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine looked at how developing male children responded to DHA, the principal fatty acid of mammalian brain gray matter. The study showed that subjects who consumed less DHA had slower reaction times and exhibited lower levels of concentration compared with subjects who consumed more DHA. Another study by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh determined that consuming more omega-3 could improve a young adult’s working memory.
There has also been research on how omega-3s can help children with different learning challenges: A July 2017 review found that omega-3 supplementation could improve the clinical symptoms and cognitive performance of children with ADHD. For a more thorough survey of the omega-3 research on children with ADHD and ADHD-like symptoms, read this informative article.
In many studies on the brain, DHA is often given top-billing. Yes, DHA is important, but keep in mind that the entire family of omega-3 fats is critical for the human body. Much of the newer brain research indicates that other omega-3s and nutrient-co-factors, besides DHA, are essential for protecting our brains. To get the full range of all of these good fatty acids, children need a diet that includes them. It is worth noting that only in fatty fish, breast milk and natural fish oil do you get all of these fatty acids combined.
Food preferences and picky eaters may be partially to blame why most American children are chronically deficient in omega-3s. However, the confusion about the optimal daily intake — especially for children — is also partly to blame.
Different health authorities around the world offer varying suggestions about the best omega-3 doses for children. For instance, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) recommends 100 – 150 mg of EPA/DHA to children ages 4 -6, and 200 – 250 mg of EPA/DHA to children ages 6-10. In the United States, the Institute of Medicine recommends around 90 mg of EPA/DHA for boys and girls ages 4 – 8, and higher doses as the children age. To check out more recommendations, click here.
These recommendations are dramatically less than what you find in other countries, like Norway, where the government advocates that children receive up to 5 ml of cod liver oil (approximately 1000 mg EPA/DHA per day), starting when they are only 6 months old. These disparities suggests that the recommended dosages are not necessarily based on scientific evidence, but are instead related to the intake that seems realistic or feasible within a culture.
Finding the optimal omega-3 serving for your children depends on their overall health, regular fish intake and diet, size and genetics. You can typically base the dose on the following guidelines: If your child is ages 5 – 15, 1,000 mg daily should be adequate. For older teens, the dosage can go up to 2000 mg per day.
You might be wondering whether there’s a limit to how much omega-3 a child should consume. For adults, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has concluded that consuming up to 5000 mg of EPA/DHA per day is safe. But there are no limits focusing on the children set by the FDA or other health organizations.
The good news is that consuming too much omega-3 has few known detrimental health effects. Some people may get loose stools if they take too large a dose of fish oil, or experience an increase in bleeding time. But typically, it stays within normal values.
Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s talk about the fun stuff…food! Boost your child’s brain power by make sure they get a the proper dose of omega-3. Swap out traditional lunchbox items for ones that are rich in the nutrient, but also delicious! Here are some ideas on how to prepare an omega-packed lunchbox:
Cookie Substitutes: Instead of packing a regular chocolate chip cookie or a sugary fruit snack (like a Fruit Roll-Up), throw in an Omega Cookie®. Each cookie is full of essential nutrients like vitamin D3, calcium, gluten-free oat fiber and, of course, omega-3 fatty acids (one contains seven regular fish oil capsules worth of omega-3!). Equally important, there are no processed ingredients such as trans fats, high fructose corn syrup or preservatives, and each cookie contains less sugar than an apple!
A Healthy Take on the Candy Bar: Swap out a traditional chocolate bar for a chocolate-coated Omega Heaven®. This cookie is made of gluten-free steel cut oats, fresh omega-3 fish oil and enrobed in non-alkalized dark chocolate. The powerful trio of healthy ingredients provides a delicious dessert that will delight the taste buds of even the pickiest eaters.
A quick note for lunch success: When you’re working with omega-3, it is important that the fish oil products stay as cool and fresh as possible. Also, be sure to pack a big drink. While it’s already important for children to drink enough fluids, Omega Cookie and Omega Heaven both contain a hefty dose of soluble oat fiber. Extra liquid is important to keep the intestinal tract functioning properly.
While I wish I had had these healthy lunch solutions years ago, I hope that other nutrition-conscious parents can benefit from these suggestions today. By creating convenient, nutritious lunches that should satisfy even the pickiest eater, I believe we can boost our children’s brain and overall health.
So let’s try the lunchbox challenge! Over the course of a few weeks, see if you notice a change in your children’s focus and attention as they eat more fresh, full-spectrum foods during the school day.