Australian children are not getting enough essential omega-3 fatty acids

Australian children are not getting enough essential omega-3 fatty acids

Australian children are not getting enough essential omega-3 fatty acids, a recent study has found [1]. This raises many health concerns, in particular the link between a low intake of omega-3 fatty acids and the rising prevalence of learning and behavioural problems, allergies and asthma in children.

Getting the right omega-3′s

Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of fats that we require in our diet on a daily basis for general cell function, immune and cardiovascular health and brain development and function. They come in several different forms, each with different functions in the body. Short chain omega-3 fatty acids are found commonly in oils such as canola and flaccid. However, their role in the body is minimal and the majority of omega-3 benefits depend on the long chain omega-3 fatty acids, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). While there are a few different foods that contain long chain omega-3 fatty acids, the only true, rich source of DHA and EPA is found in seafood. The human body has the ability to convert short-chain omega-3 fatty acids into the long-chain forms; however it only converts very small amounts, not enough to raise the levels of DHA and EPA in the body. Thus the body’s reliance on long-chain omega-3 fatty acids is dependent on how much fish/seafood a person consumes. The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) of Australia recommend that children should have at least 2-3 servings of fish a week. Unfortunately, around 75% of Australian children do not reach this target, including a whopping 35% that never or rarely eat fish/seafood [2]. As a result, Australian children are not getting enough long-chain omega-3 fatty acids like DHA and EPA.

Children are failing to reach their dietary targets

A recent Australian study which included 4,486 children aged between 5 – 16 years was able to define suggested dietary targets (SDT) of long-chained omega-3 fatty acids to reduce the risk of chronic health conditions [1]. A staggering 94% of children did not reach the SDT. On average, children consume 143mg/day of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, well below the SDT: 300 – 610mg/day (5 – 16 years of age). As a result of not reaching these targets, children have an increased risk of developing learning and behavioural disabilities, allergies and asthma. Australia has one of the highest prevalence of allergies in the world; around 33% of the population suffers from allergies [3]. Australia also has a high incidence of asthma (25%) and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (11%) [4]. As these figures are rising, the concern for children getting enough long-chain omega-3 fatty acids has increased. However, introducing more fish/seafood into a child’s diet appears to be a challenging initiative. Despite the increasing awareness of omega-3 deficiency, the average daily consumption of fish/seafood in children has not changed in the last 14 years[5], remaining at 13g/day (when it should be around 90g/day to reach the SDT for long-chain omega-3 fatty acids)[1]. The low dietary intake of fish/seafood is putting children at greater risk of developing chronic health problems. This highlights the value of dietary supplements that contain DHA and EPA as an easy alternative to ensure children reach their SDT for long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, so they are at less risk of developing chronic health problems.

Benefits of supplements

Clinical studies have shown dietary supplements that contain the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids; DHA and EPA provide many benefits to developing children. DHA and EPA supplements have been shown to dramatically reduce the incidence of allergies, asthma, atopic diseases and infections in children [6-7]. In addition they have been proven to enhance concentration [8], intelligence [9], learning [10], memory [11], attention [12], behaviour [13], motor control [14], coordination [15] and the visual acuity [16] of kids.


  1. Meyer, B.J. and Kolanu, N., Australian children are not consuming enough long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids for optimal health. Nutrition, 2011.
  2. NSW Government, (2006) NSW Schools Physical Activity and Nutrition Survey (SPANS) 2004 Full Report. North Sydney ISBN 073473929
  3. Advanced Allergy Therapeutics, Allergies in Australia. 2009; Available from:
  4. Sawyer, M.G., et al., The mental health of young people in Australia: key findings from the child and adolescent component of the national survey of mental health and well-being. Aust N Z J Psychiatry, 2001. 35(6): p. 806-14.
  5. McLennan, W. and Podger, A., 1997 National nutrition survey, selected highlights, Australia. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 1997.
  6. Furuhjelm, C., et al., Fish oil supplementation in pregnancy and lactation may decrease the risk of infant allergy. Acta Paediatr, 2009.
  7. Pastor, N., et al., Infants fed docosahexaenoic acid- and arachidonic acid-supplemented formula have decreased incidence of bronchiolitis/bronchitis the first year of life. Clin Pediatr (Phila), 2006. 45(9): p. 850-5.
  8. Jensen, C.L., et al., Effects of early maternal docosahexaenoic acid intake on neuropsychological status and visual acuity at five years of age of breast-fed term infants. J Pediatr, 2010. 157(6): p. 900-5.
  9. Helland, I.B., et al., Maternal supplementation with very-long-chain omega-3 fatty acids during pregnancy and lactation augments children’s IQ at 4 years of age. Pediatrics, 2003. 111: p. e39-e44.
  10. Richardson, A.J. and Montgomery, P., The Oxford-Durham Study: A randomised, controlled trial of dietary supplementation with fatty acids in children with developmental coordination disorder. Pediatrics, 2005. 115: p. 1360-1366.
  11. Muthayya, S., et al., Effect of fortification with multiple micronutrients and n-3 fatty acids on growth and cognitive performance in Indian schoolchildren: the CHAMPION (Children’s Health and Mental Performance Influenced by Optimal Nutrition) Study. Am J Clin Nutr, 2009. 89(6): p. 1766-75.
  12. Carlson, S.E. and Werkman, S.H., A randomized trial of visual attention of preterm infants fed docosahexaenoic acid until two months. Lipids, 1996. 31(1): p. 85-90.
  13. Itomura, M., et al., The effect of fish oil on physical aggression in schoolchildren–a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. J Nutr Biochem, 2005. 16(3): p. 163-71.
  14. Jensen, C.L., et al., Effects of maternal docosahexaenoic acid intake on visual function and neurodevelopment in breastfed term infants. Am J Clin Nutr, 2005. 82(1): p. 125-32.
  15. Dunstan, J.A., et al., Cognitive assessment of children at age 2(1/2) years after maternal fish oil supplementation in pregnancy: a randomised controlled trial. Arch Dis Child Fetal Neonatal Ed, 2008. 93(1): p. F45-50.
  16. Birch, E.E., et al., Visual maturation of term infants fed long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid-supplemented or control formula for 12 mo. Am J Clin Nutr, 2005. 81(4): p. 871-9.

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