Food and Behaviour Research

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19 Dec 2013 - NC Research Campus - Omega-3 Intake Linked to Higher Cognition in Infants, Toddlers and Young Children

by Carol L. Cheatham, Ph.D

Adults may be aware of the amount of omega-3 and other fatty acids in their diet, but most may not be thinking about the impact of fatty acids on their children, especially their cognitive abilities.

The role of fatty acids and nutrients like choline, iron, and zinc on the cognitive abilities of children is exactly what Carol L. Cheatham, Ph.D., developmental cognitive neuroscientist with the UNC Chapel Hill Nutrition Research Institute (NRI) at the NC Research Campus, thinks about every day. Her most recent research studies prove just how critical fatty acids are to the cognitive development and cognitive functioning of infants, toddlers and young children.

More Omega-3 for Young Children

Kelly Will, a graduate student in Cheatham’s laboratory, conducted a study on the effect of the ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids and the cognitive abilities of children seven to nine years of age. The results were recently published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

In the study, Will gathered dietary data so that she knew the ratio of each child’s omega-6 to omega-3 intake. After taking a set of neuropsychological tests, Cheatham said, “She found that the children who were eating too many omega-6 in comparison to omega-3 had slower speed of processing on working memory and planning problems.”

The comparison is important because omega-6, which is found in meats and refined vegetable oil is more abundant in the Western diet. Research has connected the over-consumption of omega-6 fatty acids to chronic inflammation, an underlying factor in heart disease, cancer and other common diseases. Omega-3 fatty acids are linked to the regulation of blood clotting and are considered heart healthy because they lower fats or triglycerides in the blood including the “bad” low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. Unfortunately, the typical American diet includes relatively few foods that are rich in omega-3 compared to those high in omega-6.

“Think of omega-6 fatty acids as French fries and omega-3 as vegetables,” Cheatham said. “Intake needs to be in balance because the metabolic pathways share the same enzymes. If the pathways get out of balance because you are eating more omega-6 than omega-3, the enzymes get used up, and you won’t be able to make your own DHA because you will be out of the things you need to make it.”