Fats, Omegas, DHA and ARA for children, explained
- Fat – or fatty acids – come in many forms: saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and trans fats
- From the polyunsaturated family, long-chain polyunsaturated (LCP) fats are is a must for your child’s health
- Omega-3 and Omega-6 are essential fatty acids from the LCP group, and can only be sourced from your child’s diet
Fat sometimes gets a bad rep, but it’s essential fuel for the body: fuel to store energy, fuel to exert that (seemingly endless) energy, fuel to grow. It’s why by the time your child turns one, the body fat makes up to 20% of their total body mass. 1
The first 2 years of life is a critical window for growth and development. It is also a period where your child’s brain function is at its most malleable – and nutrition has the power to stimulate or slow it. So, when it comes to fats, how can this important food group help to get your child’s development off to the best possible start?
Fats and fatty acids, explained
Here’s a key fact that you may not have known: the terms ‘fatty acids’ and ‘fats’ are often used interchangeably. However, fatty acids are actually sub-units of fats. Similar to how amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, fatty acids combine to make fat molecules.
Fatty acids come in many forms: saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and trans, some of which are more beneficial than others.
The term ‘essential fatty acid’ refers to those fatty acids which must be obtained from food because they are critical for our health, but the body cannot produce them.
Introducing Omega-3 and Omega-6 when it comes to your little one’s nutrition, a healthy amount 2 of the long-chain polyunsaturated (LCP) variety is a must. And if you were wondering, yes, LCPs are from the polyunsaturated group of fats.
There are two main variants of LCPs: Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, both of which are considered to be essential for healthy development, from conception right through to adulthood. Polyunsaturated fatty acids are essential for brain growth and development in foetuses, newborn infants and children. They are known to have anti-inflammatory properties and play a role in auto-immune diseases. 3,4
Omega-3 and Omega-6 are essential fatty acids, which mean’s your child’s diet needs to provide these valuable nutrients.
Introducing DHA and ARA
Two of the critical fatty acids, respectively from the Omega-3 and Omega-6 family, are DHA and ARA. One of the key types of Omega-3, integral to your child’s physiological and cognitive progression, is docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Yes, it tricky to pronounce! Omega-3 DHA helps to support brain and eye development. 5
Arachidonic acid (which you might have heard of as ARA) is an Omega-6 fatty acid. ARA is critical for infant growth, brain development and health. The initial extent of DHA and ARA benefits depends largely on mum’s nutritional intake during pregnancy and then during your child’s first two years. An imbalance or deficiency in fatty acids at this critical stage can have significant long-term implications.
Which foods contain Omega-3 and Omega-6?
Breast milk, which is the best start in life for your baby, naturally contains both Omega-3 and Omega-6. Generally, the more fish in a lactating mum’s diet, the higher the levels of Omega-3 and Omega-6 in her breast milk.
For Omega-3 sources, think of: Oily fish, like tuna, mackerel, salmon and sardines, Vegetable oils, such as flaxseed and canola, Chia seeds, Eggs, Walnuts
For Omega-6 sources: Vegetable oils, such as sunflower oil and canola oil, Walnuts, Sunflower seeds, Pumpkin seeds
- Pietrobelli, A. and Agosti, M. (2017). Nutrition in the First 1000 Days: Ten Practices to Minimize Obesity Emerging from Published Science. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 14(12), p.1491.
- FAO/WHO Expert Consultation on Fats and Fatty Acids in Human Nutrition, Interim Summary of Conclusions and Dietary Recommendations on Total Fat& Fatty Acids, 10-14 November, 2008, WHO, Geneva
- Youdim, K.A., Martin, A. and Joseph, J.A., 2000. Essential fatty acids and the brain: possible health implications. International journal of developmental neuroscience, 18(4-5), pp.383-399.
- Lee, J. (2013). Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids in Children. Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology & Nutrition, 16(3), p.153.
- Brain and eye development: Koletzko B et al. J Perinat Med 2008; 36:5–14, Birch E et al. Am J Clin Nutr 2010; 91:848-859,Koletzko B et al. Am J Clin Nutr 2019;00:1–7