Omega-3 fatty acids have received a lot of media attention in recent years, but most people do not have a clear understanding of what they are and what they do for the body.

Omega-3 fatty acids are one of two major classes of polyunsaturated fatty acids (sometimes referred to as PUFAs), the other being omega-6 fatty acids. While there are several different omega-3s, most scientific research has focused on three kinds: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosatetraenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

ALA is an essential fatty acid, meaning our bodies cannot produce it and it must be sourced from our diet. ALA can be converted in the liver into EPA and DHA, but the conversion is limited. So, the most practical way to ensure healthy levels of EPA and DHA is also directly from our diet.

EPA and DHA are what are referred to as long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids because of their molecular structure, and are associated with the greatest health benefits. The ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s plays an important role in our health, but the ideal ratio has not be settled on. Generally, given the health benefits various government health organisations have recommended intakes of omega 3 fatty acids for optimal health.

So where do we get these omega-3 fatty acids in our diets? ALA comes from plant oils, like canola oil, soybean oil, linseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts. EPA and DHA come mostly from oily, cold-water fish, like salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, and sardines. Farmed fish generally have more omega-3, but this depends on their feed. Due to the health benefits, many foods are now fortified with omega-3s in Australia and New Zealand including bread, milk, eggs, spreads, margarines, and infant formulas. 

The fortification of food would seem to be supported by the evidence that Australians are not getting their recommended daily doses of omega-3 fatty acids. A study looking at the data from the National Nutritional and Physical Activity Survey (2011-2012) showed that “only 20% of the population meets the recommended omega-3 intakes and only 10% of women of childbearing age meet the recommended DHA intake.”

So, why are proper levels of omega-3 fatty acids intake is so important? Research has shown that omega-3s support brain health, eye health and healthy learning.

1. Brain Health:  The children of women taking omega-3 fatty acid supplements during pregnancy and breastfeeding show better cognitive development results in early life and potential benefits later on. A study of children whose mothers took cod liver oil (rich is omega-3 fatty acids) found those children had a higher cognitive function score at age four years than those whose mothers had corn oil (rich in omega-6 fatty acids). The study showed that maternal intake of DHA during pregnancy was the only significant factor for the different results at 4 years of age.

2. Eye Health: DHA and EPA are important for proper visual development and function, in childhood and beyond. The highest concentration of DHA in the body is actually found in the retina. Studies have shown that a lack of DHA has been shown to harm vision health.

3. Learning: Research has shown that omega-3s can support healthy learning in the early school years. A study by the University of Oxford reported that a daily supplement of omega-3 DHA given to healthy but underperforming children improved their reading level over the four-month study.

With all these health benefits to omega-3s, it’s good to know that side effects are uncommon and mild, but that they have the potential to interact with medications. Always read the product label. If you have any questions, check with your healthcare provider before starting your child on a course of omega-3 supplements.