DHA and Omega-3 Demystified

May 18, 2010 at 10:32 pm 2 comments

Omega fatty acid, DHA, Omega-3, Omega-6, fish oil, flax oil… ACK!!  Confused?  You’re not alone.

Omega Fatty Acids

While most adults assume that they should reduce fat in their diets, fat is actually a critical building block for the developing brain of a child.  Getting sufficient supplies of the right types of fats are important for your child’s brain growth and development.  Fat comprises over 60% of the brain, acting as a primary component of the brain cell, as well as the myelin “insulation” for nerves that transmit messages between brain cells.  Your baby’s brain develops at the greatest rate during gestation and the first two years of life, tripling in size over the first year.

Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are necessary, however generally Western diets include sufficient (arguably, excessive) amounts of omega-6 which is found in eggs, poultry, cereals, and vegetable oils.   So the key to ensuring sufficient “healthy fat” is omega-3.  Docosahexanoic Acid (DHA) is an extremely important omega-3 fatty acid because of its higher concentration in the brain, nervous system, and the retina of the eye.  DHA comprises as much as 20% of the brain’s mass.  Infants with diets supplemented with DHA in the first four months showed improved attention and faster neural processing according to studies.1 Additionally, according to the DHA EPA Omega 3 Institute, it has been determined that there is a “quantitative positive relationship between increasing intakes of DHA (per 100 mg/day) during pregnancy and the child’s IQ.”  DHA is also believed to be important for visual development.  And if those benefits weren’t compelling enough, DHA is being studied for potentially beneficial impacts in heart health and prevention of pre-term deliveries, post-partum depression, and attention disorders.

Unfortunately, the best food sources of DHA are fatty fish, and larger fatty fish are not advisable to consume in large quantities due to risks of mercury contamination.  Other healthy omega-3 fatty acids can be found in flax seeds and nuts, however, it’s important to understand that other omega-3 fatty acids such as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) are not efficiently converted to brain-building DHA.  For vegetarians, this creates a tough situation, fortunately there are now non-animal supplements such as Life’s DHA.  But foods typically are better sources than supplements given the higher absorption rate.

DHA Dosage Recommendations

There is no official recommended daily allowance (RDA) for DHA yet.  However, consensus recommendations for pregnant woman are approximately 300 milligrams of DHA, and 1,600 milligrams of total omega-3.  Non-pregnant adults typically are advised to have 1,000 milligrams of total omega-3 fatty acids daily with 220 mg of DHA.  However, the average American adult consumes far less than these recommended levels (closer to 100 mg daily).  DHA dosage recommendations for children range from 70 to 220 milligrams.

Food and Supplement Sources for DHA

  • Breastmilk includes DHA, so no supplementation should be necessary for breastfed infants.
  • Foods rich in DHA include fish (salmon, tuna, herring, sardines) and organ meats.  Limit fish to three servings per week.  3 ounces of farmed Coho salmon provide 740 mg of DHA.
  • DHA softgel supplements are available from fish oil (look for mercury-free), or marine algae (yep, that’s where the fish get DHA).
  • Vegetarian option: Spectrum Essentials Children’s DHA Chewable Softgels or drops – I add a few drops to our kids’ milk and shake it to combine.

Serve DHA-fortified foods such as:

  • Horizon Organic milk with DHA
  • Silk Soymilk Plus Omega 3 DHA  Note: talk with your pediatrition about whether you need to limit servings.  We were advised by our doctor that Silk Soymilk Plus DHA contained high levels of other fat-soluable vitamins that could be excessive for toddlers beyond a few glasses per day.
  • YoBaby Yogurt with DHA from Stonyfield Farm Organic
  • Eggs from hens fed a DHA-rich diet

Sources of other beneficial non-DHA omega-3 fatty acids, including alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and LNA:

  • Flax seeds and flax seed oil – available in soft gel supplements
  • Pumkin seeds
  • Walnuts
  • Soy nuts and oil

1 Uauy R et al., Essential Fatty Acids in Visual and Brain Development. Lipids. 2001 Sep;36(9)
Horizon Organic DHA Facts
WebMD Omega 3 Fact Sheet

Entry filed under: Health. Tags: , , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Your Baby’s Brain Development « whizbit  |  May 21, 2010 at 9:36 am

    […] to establish these brain connections, so a child’s diet should include sufficient amounts of “good fat” such as DHA (ideally via breastmilk early on).  Moreover, while the brain develops massive quantities of […]

  • 2. Naps are Key to Positive Engagement in Toddlers | whizbit  |  September 5, 2013 at 12:24 pm

    […] Journal of Neuroscience , as reported by BBC News suggests that brain cells that produce insulating myelin are boosted in REM sleep.  This could be one of many factors that contribute to the positive […]


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