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The Nutrition Examination Research Digest (NERD) aims to provide rigorous, unbiased analysis of the latest and most important nutrition and supplementation studies. Click here to subscribe or login if already a subscriber .

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Omega-3: kid-tested, mom approved?

While heart health gets much of the attention for fish oil benefits (which, incidentally, are often overstated), outcomes in children typically show more promise. This study, involving children and their parents living on the island of Mauritius, explored possible behavioral benefits to fish oil supplementation. And not just the childrens’ behavior, but the parents’ as well!

Study under review: Reduction in behavior problems with omega-3 supplementation on children aged 8-16 years: a randomized, doubleblind, placebo-controlled, stratified, parallel group trial


Omega-3 fatty acids are a recurring theme in the Research Digest. We’ve previously written about trials assessing omega-3 intervention in preventing childhood allergies (NERD #5), reducing epileptic seizures (NERD #1), and improving brain function (NERD #2). In this article, we’ll dive into a similar theme: does omega-3 supplementation have positive effects on measures of children’s behavior?

While there are nearly a dozen common types of omega-3 fatty acids, four are used in this study: docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosapentaenoic acid (DPA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). These four are the most studied omega-3 fatty acids, and the ones most commonly found in food: DHA, EPA, and DPA are primarily found in marine sources, like fish and krill, while ALA is mostly found in plant sources, such as flax and walnuts. The various forms of omega-3 fatty acids have different lengths of carbon chains and different numbers of double bonds, but all have one thing in common: the first double bond in the carbon chain is three carbons away from the ‘omega’ or terminal carbon atom in the chain. Hence the name, ‘omega-3’ fatty acid.

There have been a number of studies that found correlations between poor prenatal[1], infant, and childhood[2] nutrition and antisocial or aggressive behavior. Researchers came up with a hypothesis that suggests improvements in childhood nutrition could lead to reductions in this type of behavior. One study found a correlation[3] between fish consumption (high in the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA) and lower incidences of homicide, and the same study author found the inverse effect[4] in areas with high omega-6 (linoleic acid) consumption. However, it has been difficult to get a clear picture from randomized trials of whether or not this hypothesis is correct due to several limitations in these studies. These limitations include lack of adequate study power[5] to differentiate a statistically significant change between the treatment and placebo groups, relatively low doses[6] of omega-3 fatty acids, short treatment durations[7] averaging only three months, and small sample sizes[8]. This study was designed to overcome the limitations of previous trials.

Observational studies have found that childhood nutrition problems, including low omega-3 intake, may be correlated with a higher incidence of behavioral issues. Clinical trials on omega-3’s effects on behavior have provided mixed results, however, and many of these trials have had some problems with their methods. This study attempted to overcome those problems to get a clearer picture of whether or not omega-3 intake in children affects behavioral difficulties.

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Other Articles in Issue #10 (August 2015)

  • Put down the apple and have some chedda
    Although both cheese and meat are lumped into the “watch out!” category in hearthealth recommendations, dairy products often show neutral or positive associations with cardiovascular health. But how do cheese-rich diets fare in randomized trials when compared to other diets? This trial tested three diets against each other in a highly controlled fashion: a cheese diet, meat diet, and high-carb diet.
  • All up in your krill: The story on krill
    Oil thus far has been fairly simplistic: it’s better than fish oil and more expensive. But there’s a reason why you can’t draw conclusions based off few studies, and successful results in one condition don’t apply to other conditions. This trial gives some of the first pieces of evidence for possible negative metabolic effects of krill oil.
  • Priming the pump: carb levels for endurance exercise
    If you run, cycle, or do anything long and sweaty, then you already know that carb intake is especially important for endurance activity. But recommended intakes range from around 30-60 grams, which is pretty broad. This trial can help you get to a more specific number, and possibly perform better.
  • A thorough trial of carb intake for diabetes
    There are few conditions where carbs play as direct of a role as in type 2 diabetes. Yet the recommended carb intake levels for this condition aren’t so different than for the general population. That may change at some point, due to trials like this one, which is more highly controlled and thorough than previous lower-carb & diabetes studies.
  • Interview: Elke Nelson PhD
  • Interview: Marguerite McDonald, MD
  • “B” is for breakouts
    B vitamins are commonly thought of as harmless, due to being water-soluble. As nutrition junkies know, that view lacks nuance, and B vitamins can indeed be harmful in certain situations. As an example, this elegant series of experiments sheds new light on the mechanism by which vitamin B12 may impact acne formation.
  • Wellness, Not Weight
    By Cristen Harris, PhD
  • Salt in the wound
    Science and mystery often go hand in hand, and this is a perfect example: when you have a skin infection, you tend to have more salt in the infected skin. But why is that? Well, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. The salt is probably doing something in regards to immune response, and it’s possible that how much salt you eat could also play a role. Resist the urge to skip to the end of this mystery -- the buildup is worth it.
  • Carbs-protein or protein-carbs …
    does food order matter? Grandma always said “You have to eat your vegetables first if you want dessert!”. If you substitute “carbs” in for dessert, grandma might have hit another one out of the park. It’s possible that simply switching the order of what you eat might benefit blood sugar control, which would be a relatively easy way to address the thorny public health issue of type 2 diabetes