Q&A with Dr. Sarah Schenker on DHA, an essential Omega 3 fatty acid

Dr Sarah SchenkerDr Sarah Schenker answers your questions on DHA, an essential Omega 3 fatty acid and its importance for brain development, particularly in young children. Her answers cover food sources of Omega 3, recommended dosage for children, DHA sourced from algae as a vegetarian alternative and advice on Omega 3 intake for adults.

Dr Sarah Schenker is a registered dietitian, accredited sports dietitian and registered public health nutritionist. Sarah is a member of the British Dietetic Association, The Nutrition Society and has served on both professional and government committees including the British Nutrition Foundation.

Omega 3 for vegetarians and people with allergies | Omega 3 for adults


Omega 3 for children

Q. Whiskeytangotrot: We have fish fingers with added omega-something. But otherwise I don't pay much attention to this sort of stuff. What should I be doing?

A. Dr Schenker: Most experts will argue that a child should be able to get all the nutrients they need by eating a well-balanced diet that includes a variety of foods from each of the four main food groups (fruit and veg; starchy carbs and wholegrains; protein foods and milk and dairy).

But most mums know that in the real world this is much easier said than done. As a mum of young boys myself, my advice is somewhere in the middle. Try not to rely on the same foods and, where possible, offer your child a wide range of foods, the same as you would eat yourself, as this will help your child to discover different flavours and textures and develop varied tastes and better eating habits.

You can then use supplements, such as multivitamins and long-chain omega 3 fats as a safety net for those tricky situations when you're faced with a fussy eater or you are short on time and have to resort to convenient processed foods.

This approach will ensure your child is getting adequate amounts of all the essential nutrients they need to support good health and growth.

Q. NumptyMum: Am I right in thinking that omega 3 oils are helpful for children with additional support needs? And in which case, how much a week?

A. Dr Schenker: Most of the research has shown that one omega 3 fat in particular can help children who have special needs, be it ADHD or learning difficulties. It is known as DHA and the richest food source is oily fish (eg mackerel, salmon, trout, sardines and fresh tuna).

Shellfish and white fish don't contain enough DHA to make them a good source, likewise most cooking oils.

Life's DHA logoFor a child who is only just accepting fishfingers, strongly flavoured fish like mackerel is going to be a bit of a stretch. Oily fish get DHA by eating algae, which is a rich source, so algae supplements are a way of cutting out the middle man for fussy and non-fish eaters.

Q. LiveITup: Whenever I look up anything about health and nutrition, DHA seems to raise its head. As it seems to be nigh on impossible to get enough from a 'normal' diet that might include fish occasionally, should kids have supplements?

I have three sons (aged 14, 10 and five) and they have Brain Boosters sometimes, but I don't notice any difference in them. And is there a tie-in with most of us being vitamin D-deficient every winter - does DHA help?

If supplements are helpful, what is the best source of them? And are there other supplements that should be taken as a matter of course by children?

A. Dr Schenker: Although the body is able to make DHA, our intake of other fats makes it difficult for the body to make enough. That is why there is an official recommendation from the Department of Health that we aim to eat at least one portion of oily fish per week.

Oily fish will deliver a number of omega 3 fats but, when it comes to children, DHA has been identified as being the most important as it supports their brain health.

While I would encourage children to eat fish for other health reasons, many don't like it and so the only way to ensure a regular intake of DHA is via a supplement. I most definitely recommend a vitamin D supplement, especially through the winter months when the UVB rays from the sun are at too low an angle to stimulate the production of vitamin D in the skin. Vitamin D is not only important for bone health, it is also important for immunity, so a supplement may help ward off those dreaded winter colds.

Q. MrsBeaver: My four-year-old daughter loves tinned mackeral and tinned tuna, but how many grams per week is it safe for her to have?

A. Dr Schenker: It's great that your daugher likes fish, but you are right to be concerned about how much is too much. It is recommended that girls and adult women of childbearing age do not eat more than two portions of oily fish per week. An adult portion is 140g (smaller for a child, approx 80-100g), whereas boys, men and older women can have up to four portions a week.

This is because oily fish can contain low levels of pollutants that can build up in the body. In girls and women who could become pregnant in the future, this could pose a risk for their unborn babies.

"When tuna is canned, the processing means that most of the omega 3 fats are lost, so it no longer counts as an oily fish."

Fresh and tinned mackerel counts as a portion of oily fish, but for tuna, only fresh is considered oily. When tuna is canned, the processing means that most of the omega 3 fats are lost, so it no longer counts as an oily fish.

Q. Troisenfants: I have tried to get all my children to eat fish but have failed miserably. I have three daughters, 10 and under. The youngest will eat fish fingers, but the other two absolutely refuse any type of fish - although I have tried to hide it in pies and fishcakes and various types of sauces, even telling them it's not fish but chicken! Nothing works. How else can they get those essential omega acids?

A. Dr Schenker: This is a really common problem, many children just do not like fish. If it's any consolation, they will probably come to love it as adults as palates mature and they become more interested in food. But that doesn't help for now.

The best thing you can do is what you are already doing, keep offering it in various guises, in the hope that you have a breakthrough. I realise this can make for difficult meal times and wasted food, so serve very small portions along with something else that you know they will eat.

From a practical point of view, it may be a once a fortnight/month thing to do rather than once a week, but try not to drop fish from the menu altogether. In the meantime, they can get important omega 3 fats from regular supplements.

Q. Tenlittlebuns: I have given my son omega-3/omega-6 capsules for five months, for the first three months on double dose, now on standard dose. He is taking 58mg of DHA a day via these. 

He is seven and has problems with reading and memory.

From what I read, it would seem that he is still not getting enough DHA to make a difference? Please could you show us an example of what a child should eat in a week to get sufficient DHA? Or do I need to up the supplements again?

A. Dr Schenker: There isn't an official recommended daily amount for DHA, but 58mg does seem a little on the low side. Rather than up your current supplements, it might be wise to change to a supplement of DHA. This could be the best chance of seeing an improvement with your son's reading and learning.

DHA supplementResearch from Oxford University showed that taking a daily supplement of DHA improved the reading skills of underperforming but otherwise healthy children. In the trial, 362 healthy children aged seven to nine were given a 600mg dose of DHA (200mg three times a day) for 16 weeks.

At the end of the trial, there was improved reading performance for the worst readers, which helped these children catch up with their peer group. An added bonus was that many of the parents reported improved behaviour and attention in their children during the trial.

Q. Leafmold: Would a supplement of omega 3 help my daughter with her eczema? Her eczema is severe and she has sensitivity to dust mite, pollen and cat.

A. Dr Schenker: It is certainly worth a try. Long-chain omega 3 fats can help to attenuate the inflammation process in the body, which means that although the eczema won't disappear, it will be less severe.

DHA for vegetarians and people with allergies

Q. MaryIngalls: What about vegetarians? What foods can provide DHA? How much daily? Or are supplements the only answer?

A. Dr Schenker: It is really only oily fish and meats that contain enough DHA to make them a good source. Some vegetarians rely on flaxseed oil because it contains another omega 3 fat called ALA, but while the body can make DHA from ALA, the conversion rate is woefully low.

"It is a common misconception that fish produce their own DHA - it is actually eating algae that makes fish a rich source of DHA. For vegetarians the best way to ensure a diet rich in DHA is to consume it directly."

DHA is available from algae oil, which is how the fish get in the first place. It is a common misconception that fish produce their own DHA - it is actually eating algae that makes fish a rich source of DHA. For vegetarians the best way to ensure a diet rich in DHA is to consume it directly.

Q. ogopogo: My four-year-old daughter is allergic to fish and nuts. How do I make sure she gets the right EFAs? All the supplements seem to derive from fish and her consultant says she should not risk taking them.

A. Dr Schenker: There are two fatty acids that are considered essential because the body is not able to make them, they are called linoleic acid and ALA (alpha linolenic acid).

It is easy to get enough linoleic acid, as it found in healthy cooking oils and spreads. ALA on the other hand is found in fewer foods - flaxseed oils, seeds and avocados are good sources. As already mentioned ALA can be converted to DHA in the body but this process is limited so to ensure a good intake of ALA and DHA it is a good idea to look for a vegetarian supplement.

Q. Judey: What dosage of algae-based DHA oil should I give my soon-to-be two year old? We are vegetarians so don't get any from fish, and I don't give nuts to my toddler. Also, what is the best food to put it in (does it matter if it is hot etc)? I intend to open a capsule and empty the contents into something.... and hope that she eats it.

A. Dr Schenker: There isn't an official recommended dose for DHA, but a daily supplement providing 200mg should be adequate to promote good health. Toddlers may find it difficult to take a capsule, so you easily cut it open and drop the oil into a small pot yogurt or something similar that you know they are likely to finish and can see how much they have eaten.

Omega 3 for adults

Q. Cocolepew: Does Omega 3 have any impact on your hormones? Should women be taking omegas 6 and 9 as well as 3?

A. Dr Schenker: There is no need to take omega 6 or 9 oils as we have an abundance of these in a typical Western diet. Omega 3 fats are trickier to get as there are fewer sources, and for the long-chain omega 3s, only oily fish is a rich source. Long-chain omega 3 can have a positive effect on hormone production, particularly hormones involved in inflammation and immunity.

Q. Whiskeytangotrot: I am a shocking burner of the candle and feel that could do with some TLC nutrients-wise - any advice of how to stockpile to avoid the likely festive exhaustion??

A. Dr Schenker: Obviously, it is better for me to advise you to eat well and look after yourself, but equally I understand the demands of being a busy working mum (and one who wants to have some fun at Christmas). If you think your diet is not as good as it could be, consider taking supplements for vitamins and minerals and other nutrients that might be lacking in your diet such as DHA. But make it your New Year resolution to eat better in 2013!

Q. Breadandbutterfly: Any recommended brands for supplentation? How do they differ? And what foods contain what amounts of DHA/EPA etc? I don't understand the difference, and how much of each required daily/weekly etc? My kids eat oily fish quite happily so I'd rather feed them cheap food than expensive capsules, but if you cannot get enough from food alone...?

A. Dr Schenker: When choosing a brand you need to consider what will work best for you and your family, some children will find capsules difficult to swallow but some will not like taking oil from a spoon. Some brands are available as chewy sweets, which can work well for children.

DHA has been identified as the most important omega 3 for brain and eye health, while EPA is important for heart health.

"DHA has been identified as the most important omega 3 for brain and eye health, while EPA is important for heart health."

And when it comes to dose and types of omega 3, again you need to consider your needs. DHA has been identified as the most important omega 3 for brain and eye health, while EPA is important for heart health.

High doses of DHA (over 200mg per day) may help with specific problems such as improving reading skills and learning, whereas a lower dose may just contribute to overall good health.

Vegetarian families will want to avoid oils derived from fish and opt for algae oil, which is a concentrated source of DHA. If your children enjoy eating oily fish, and if they are eating between 1-2 (girls) or 1-4 (boys) portions per week, you may not need a supplement at all.

This Q&A was sponsored by LifesDHA. For more information about DHA, and Algal DHA in particular, visit www.lifesdha.com.


Last updated: 9 months ago