Food and Behaviour Research

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19 September 2007 - Omega-3 Centre - Australian kids in dire need of more Omega-3s

A NEW report released today has found Australian children should be consuming more fish and other foods rich in long chain omega-3s to increase their intake by as much as five times their current level.

This major dietary shortfall is causing growing concern for health experts who report that the low intake of foods rich in long chain omega-3s, called EPA and DHA, is contributing to a range of health problems prevalent in Australian children.

The new report, produced by an international team of nutrition scientists and health experts, recommends an intake of at least 500mg of omega-3 DHA and EPA per day for children aged 14 years and over. Most children do not consume enough fish and estimates of their average omega-3 DHA and EPA intakes are between 34 and 118 mg/day - with many children consuming much less.

The evidence is strong enough to suggest healthcare professionals should consider omega-3s as an adjunct in the treatment of children with developmental brain disorders such as ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia.

Professor Andrew Sinclair, Professor of Human Nutrition at Deakin University and an international omega-3 expert, said omega-3s are an essential nutrient required by the body for healthy functioning at all stages of life, but they are especially important for growing children in the formative years.

"The intake of omega-3s in Australian children is very low because most kids these days are such fussy eaters. They often just don't like fish, and certainly steer away from other seafoods which are naturally rich in these healthy long chain omega-3 nutrients called DHA and EPA," Professor Sinclair said.

One recent NSW study found that most children consume fish less than once a week making it almost impossible to reach optimal intakes of long chain omega-3s.

"The strongest evidence links omega-3 intake with heart health and brain function. But we know omega-3s are essential for the proper operation of all cells in our bodies, and they are likely to have a role in many other areas of human health and disease," he said.

Official recommendations too low

"Our recommendation on consumption of 500mg per day of EPA and DHA (long-chain omega-3s) for children is based on the level required to confer a beneficial effect for adults on heart health. Parents need to be aware of this current enormous shortfall and find more creative ways to help their children consume more essential omega-3 nutrients. The richest sources are fish and other seafood, foods enriched with long chain omega-3s and lean red meat," Professor Sinclair said.

The scientists are also calling on the Federal Government to set recommended dietary guidelines for intakes of long-chain omega-3s at a level that will benefit the health of Australian children. They said current recommendations are too low.

The report outlines the conclusions of a Scientific Consensus Workshop, convened by The Omega-3 Centre in April this year, analysing the body of evidence linking omega-3 nutrients to a critical role in the physical and mental wellbeing of children.

Dr Natalie Sinn, from the Nutritional Physiology Research Centre at the University of South Australia, contributed to the report saying there is strong evidence linking omega-3 nutrients to a number of structural and functional roles in the development of the brain.

"Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and other foods are not only important for physical health, but also for healthy brain function and development. Omega-3s may help with learning problems and behavioral difficulties, particularly if children are excessively hyperactive, impulsive and have difficulty concentrating," Dr Sinn said.

Omega-3s benefit childhood disorders

"My own research has confirmed that up to 40-50% of children who suffer from symptoms associated with ADHD may improve with omega-3 supplementation over a 30 week period.

"This evidence is strong enough to suggest that healthcare professionals should consider long chain omega-3s as part of the treatment pathway for children with ADHD symptoms, which occur in many developmental disorders such as Asperger's Syndrome, dyspraxia, dyslexia and autism," Dr Sinn said.

Ms Wendy Morgan, Accredited Practicing Dietitian and Executive Director of The Omega-3 Centre, said omega-3s are a type of polyunsaturated fat. Our bodies can only convert very small amounts of the shorter chain omega-3s to the more effective long chain omega-3s, EPA and DHA, so most needs to come from our diet.

"Long chain omega-3s are essential nutrients for a number of health functions, and the report shows they are required by all cells in the body. They have a role in brain growth and development, behaviour and learning with emerging evidence of their role in bone health, asthma and mood," Ms Morgan said.

"We only need around one per cent of our total recommended fat intake to be long chain omega-3s, but most people still don't consume nearly enough despite having plenty of the other types of fat in their diets," she said.

The Scientific Consensus Workshop was born out of the need to better understand the role omega-3s have on children's health in Australia, with all experts agreeing they require far more omega-3s than current dietary intake research indicates.

"In this climate, where our children's health is at stake, the essential role omega-3 plays to ensure healthy physical and cognitive growth and development is just too important to ignore," Ms Morgan said.

"Australia rates highly when it comes to omega-3 research, and we are very glad to have had some of the world's foremost authorities contribute to the development of this scientific consensus paper. We want to raise community and government awareness and understanding of this key nutritional issue that affects us all", Ms Morgan said.

A summary of the Consensus Meeting outcomes, and excerpts of the report, are available on The Omega-3 Website: www.omega-3centre.com