Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Catch of the day - Should we be giving our children fish oil supplements? Lucy Atkins examines the evidence

When 12-year-old Thomas Wood was given fish oil supplements last year, the transformation seemed dramatic. "The change in him was amazing," says his father, Frank, a postman. "He became very organised. He started waking up early and was keen to learn. His teacher couldn't believe how well he did in his Sats - he managed to get all fours, which was incredible for him. Seeing him in his last class assembly, we were amazed. Usually you could pick him out because he'd be jumping around, but he was sitting still, calm. Everyone noticed the difference."

Thomas was given the supplements as part of an initiative by Middlesbrough LEA to see whether they could improve the academic performance and concentration of children aged eight to 11. Others have followed. This academic year, education chiefs at Durham county council offered £1m worth of donated Eye Q fish oil supplements to 5,000 GCSE students. Parents of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, dyslexia or dyspraxia may already be aware of promising research into the role of fish oils. But now fish oil supplements are hitting the mainstream as the newest dietary must-have for diligent parents everywhere. Bung your child a brainy pill with his muesli, the hype goes, and he will become serene, reasonable and perform brilliantly in spelling tests. It is a tempting proposition.
Omega-3 fatty acids, found naturally in oily fish such as mackerel, sardines or salmon, have long been known to be important for brain function (not to mention heart health). The problem is that our modern diet - even post-Jamie Oliver - contains paltry amounts of oily fish (only fresh, not tinned, tuna counts). Most children are therefore officially deficient in omega-3. Brands such as St Ivel, Flora, Müller or Kingsmill have already cottoned on to this deficit's market potential and are bunging omega-3s in everything from yogurt to sliced bread. But the real revolution is happening in the supplements aisle where vitamin manufacturers from Sanatogen to Bassets are offering chewy, strawberry-flavoured fish oil supplements aimed at kids and their doting parents.

This all sounds quite useful - after all, who wants to force a kipper down their six-year-old's throat twice a week? The only problem is a lack of evidence that fish oils help to develop mentally normal kids.

Here is what we know: scientists have established pretty convincingly that healthy adults who have relatively low levels of omega-3 in their bloodstream are more likely to be mildly depressed, pessimistic and impulsive than those who have high levels of omega-3. There is good evidence to show that omega-3 supplements can reduce the symptoms of depression in adults. Preliminary studies also show that omega-3 could help adults with conditions such as schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder. When it comes to children's behaviour and academic performance, however, the evidence is more mixed.

Source - Guardian

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