Occasional sniffles, coughs, and missed school days are normal for young children, but along with sensible precautions such as regular hand washing, health experts are finding certain nutrients, including omega-3s, may be important for keeping your family healthy.
The omega-3 advantage
To study how vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fats affect frequency and severity of respiratory tract and gastrointestinal infections, researchers randomly selected 598 six- to ten-year-old Indian school children to receive foods fortified with one of the following daily nutrient combinations for 12 months:
1,000 milligrams (mg) of omega-3 fat, with 900 mg from plants and 100 mg from fish and seafood sources of omega-3 fat, plus 100% of the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of iodine, iron, vitamins A, C, B2, B6, B12, folate, zinc, and calcium
1,000 mg of omega-3 fat plus 15% of the RDA of iodine, iron, vitamins A, C, B2, B6, B12, folate, zinc, and calcium
140 mg of omega-3 fat (all from plant-derived fat) plus 100% of the RDA of iodine, iron, vitamins A, C, B2, B6, B12, folate, zinc, and calcium
140 mg of omega-3 fat plus 15% of the RDA of iodine, iron, vitamins A, C, B2, B6, B12, folate, zinc, and calcium
The researchers found that regardless of whether they received 100% or 15% of the RDA for vitamins and minerals:
Children receiving 1,000 mg of omega-3 fat per day had significantly fewer episodes of upper respiratory tract infections compared with the children receiving 140 mg of omega-3 fat daily.
Children receiving 1,000 mg of omega-3 fat had significantly shorter durations of being sick when they had upper and lower respiratory tract and gastrointestinal infections compared with children receiving 140 mg of omega-3 fat.
The children receiving food fortified with 100% of the RDA of iodine, iron, vitamins A, C, B2, B6, B12, folate, zinc, and calcium experienced shorter duration of general illness symptoms only compared with children receiving only 15% of the RDA for these nutrients.
Nutrition beyond India
For young children, eating more omega-3 fat may result in fewer and less severe respiratory and gastrointestinal tract infections; more vitamins and minerals may keep general illness symptoms at bay. Keep the following points in mind before you give your kids these nutrients:
Consider context. This study was conducted in an economically poor area in southern India, where malnutrition is more common. Health experts have long noted that supplementing vital nutrients in malnourished groups offers more health benefit than supplementing well-nourished people. If your children are well nourished, and chances are good that they are, these results may not apply.
Pick your product. Adult multivitamins aren’t meant for kids, so stick to age-appropriate children’s multivitamins. Watch out for artificial colors, flavors, and added sugars—things many parents do not want to give their children along with a multivitamin.
Factor in food. Children now eat a wide variety of fortified foods, from orange juice to cereal, snack bars, and more. If your child eats plenty of fortified foods, he or she may not need a multivitamin.
Get specific. If you have concerns about the adequacy of your child’s diet, talk to your pediatrician or a pediatric dietitian. These professionals can take a detailed history of your child’s eating habits and pinpoint specific nutrients where he or she may be coming up short.
(Eur J Clin Nutr. Online ahead of print Oct 19, 2011; doi:10.1038/ejcn.2011.178)
Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD, an author, speaker, and internationally recognized expert in chronic disease prevention, epidemiology, and nutrition, has taught medical, nursing, public health, and alternative medicine coursework. She has delivered over 150 invited lectures to health professionals and consumers and is the creator of a nutrition website acclaimed by the New York Times and Time magazine. Suzanne received her training in epidemiology and nutrition at the University of Michigan, School of Public Health at Ann Arbor.