Nutrition: Omega -3 supplements & learning

Fish oil helps some children, but popping pills may not.

Updated: June 23, 2015 1:43 am

European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, April 2015
Authors: B K Brew, B G Toelle and Others

Consumption of oily fish more than once per week has been shown to improve cognitive outcomes in children, who are frequently told it would make them brainier.

However, it is unknown whether similar benefits can be achieved in children by long-term omega-3 fatty acid (polyunsaturated fatty acids typically found in marine oils) supplementation.

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The objective of the researchers’ study was to investigate the effect of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation during the first five years of life on subsequent academic performance in children by conducting a secondary analysis of the CAPS (Childhood Asthma Prevention Study).

A total of 616 infants with a family history of asthma were randomised to receive tuna fish oil (high in long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, active) or Sunola oil (low in omega-3 fatty acids, control) from the time breastfeeding ceased — or at the age of six months — until the age of five years.

The academic performance of the children was measured by a nationally standardised assessment of literacy and numeracy (National Assessment Programme Literacy and Numeracy, or  NAPLAN) in the school years 3, 5, 7 and 9.

Plasma omega-3 fatty acid levels were measured at regular intervals until the children were of eight years of age. Between-group differences in test scores, adjusted for maternal age, birth weight and maternal education, were estimated using mixed-model regression.

Among 239 children, there were no significant differences in NAPLAN scores between the active and control groups, the researchers found. However, at eight years of age, the proportion of omega-3 fatty acid in plasma was positively associated with the NAPLAN score, the study results showed.

The researchers concluded that the findings of the study did not support the practice of supplementing omega-3 fatty acids in the diet of young children to improve academic outcomes.

Also, they concluded that further exploration was needed to understand the association between plasma omega-3 fatty acid levels at eight years of age, and academic performance.

(ADAPTED FROM the ABSTRACT to the study)

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