Can Fish Oil Make Children Smarter?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Food and Health, Issues, Supplements and Health

When Do Omega-3 Supplements Make Sense?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Confused ChildWe know that the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil are critically important for brain development. But will they really help our kids learn better? Some studies suggest that they do, while other studies have come up empty. Why is this? More importantly, what does it mean for your children? Will fish oil supplements help or not?

I’ve selected today’s study (Portillo-Reyes et al, Research in Developmental Disabilities, 35: 861-870, 2014) because it sheds some light on those important questions.

Can Fish Oil Make Children Smarter?

This study looked at the effect of supplementation for 3 months with 360 mg of EPA + DHA on cognitive function of malnourished Mexican children, ages 8-12 years old. The children came from poor neighborhoods where foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids were seldom available. Low intake of omega-3 fatty acids was confirmed by a food frequency survey.

Cognition was assessed based on a battery of 16 standardized cognition tests at the beginning of the study and again 3 months later.

The results were fairly clear cut. The children receiving the fish oil supplements showed significant gains in mental processing speed, visual-motor coordination, perceptual integration, attention span and executive function compared to children receiving a placebo. In case you were wondering, the first three most strongly affect a child’s ability to learn and last two affect their tendency to display ADHD symptoms.

What Is the Significance of This Study?

There are a lot of things not to like about the study:

  • It was a small study (59 children total)
  • Blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids were not determined.
  • It was a short term study (12 months would have been better).
  • Measuring the ability to learn is difficult. Experts in the field differ about which cognitive tests are best. I’m not taking a position on the adequacy of the tests they were using because that is not my area of expertise.
  • Because it was done in a poor region of Mexico, one could argue that its applicability to children in this country is uncertain.

 

So why even mention this study? That’s because it illustrates an important principle – one that is often ignored in the design and interpretation of clinical studies.

Simply put, the principle is that not everyone will benefit equally from supplementation. It is the malnourished and the sick who will benefit most. When you focus your clinical studies on those groups you are most likely to observe a benefit of supplementation. When you focus your study on well nourished, healthy individuals it will be much more difficult to observe any benefit. And if you perform a meta-analysis of all studies, without evaluating the studies on the basis of need – nutrition status and health status – benefits will also be much more difficult to demonstrate.

This study is just one example of that principle. In an earlier “Health Tips From the Professor” (Can DHA Help Johnny Read?) I reported on a study looking at the effect of DHA supplementation on reading ability of English schoolchildren. In that study, it was the children who were most deficient in DHA and started with the lowest reading skills who benefitted most from DHA supplementation.

What does all of this mean to you?

  • If you are a parent, you may be asking if a study done with Mexican children eating poor diets has any relevance for your kids. In today’s world of pop tarts and pizza it just might. Most children don’t order sardines on their pizza. As a consequence, many American children don’t get enough omega-3 fatty acids in their diet.
  • Should your children be getting more omega-3s in their diet? A recent study concluded that most American children only get 20-40 mg/day of DHA from their diet. So if your child’s food preferences don’t include salmon, sardines and the like – and if your child is experiencing learning issues or problems with ADHD, you might consider adding fish oil supplements to their diet. There’s no need to megadose. The international standard is around 200 mg/day of DHA for children 7 or older.
  • If you are one of those people who is confused by conflicting headlines about the benefits of supplementation, you may want to look at the studies behind those headlines and ask if supplementation would have been likely to provide any benefit in the subjects studied.

The Bottom Line:

1)     A recent study reported that supplementation with fish oil significantly improved learning skills in children consuming a diet that was deficient in omega-3 fatty acids.

2)     If your children are not consuming foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as coldwater fish, you might wish to make sure that they are getting adequate levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their diet. Most experts recommend around 200 mg/day for children over 7.

3)     This study also illustrates the principle that supplementation is most likely to be of demonstrable benefit to those who have the worst diets and the greatest need. That doesn’t mean that supplementation won’t benefit everyone, but it does mean that it may be difficult to prove the value of supplementation in healthy people consuming a good diet.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

 

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Comments (1)

  • Jo Ott

    |

    I wish insurance companies would start paying for products that actually work instead of paying for dangerous & addictive drugs to give to kids. It is common sense to me.
    Thanks,
    Jo

    Reply

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Latest Article

High Protein Diets and Weight Loss

Posted October 16, 2018 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do High Protein Diets Reduce Fat And Preserve Muscle?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Healthy Diet food group, proteins, include meat (chicken or turkAre high protein diets your secret to healthy weight loss? There are lots of diets out there – high fat, low fat, Paleolithic, blood type, exotic juices, magic pills and potions. But recently, high protein diets are getting a lot of press. The word is that they preserve muscle mass and preferentially decrease fat mass.

If high protein diets actually did that, it would be huge because:

  • It’s the fat – not the pounds – that causes most of the health problems.
  • Muscle burns more calories than fat, so preserving muscle mass helps keep your metabolic rate high without dangerous herbs or stimulants – and keeping your metabolic rate high helps prevent both the plateau and yo-yo (weight regain) characteristic of so many diets.
  • When you lose fat and retain muscle you are reshaping your body – and that’s why most people are dieting to begin with.

So let’s look more carefully at the recent study that has been generating all the headlines (Pasiakos et al, The FASEB Journal, 27: 3837-3847, 2013).

The Study Design:

This was a randomized control study with 39 young (21), healthy and fit men and women who were only borderline overweight (BMI = 25). These volunteers were put on a 21 day weight loss program in which calories were reduced by 30% and exercise was increased by 10%. They were divided into 3 groups:

  • One group was assigned a diet containing the RDA for protein (about 14% of calories in this study design).
  • The second group’s diet contained 2X the RDA for protein (28% of calories)
  • The third group’s diet contained 3X the RDA for protein (42% of calories)

In the RDA protein group carbohydrate was 56% of calories, and fat was 30% of calories. In the other two groups the carbohydrate and fat content of the diets was decreased proportionally.

Feet_On_ScaleWhat Did The Study Show?

  • Weight loss (7 pounds in 21 days) was the same on all 3 diets.
  • The high protein (28% and 42%) diets caused almost 2X more fat loss (5 pounds versus 2.8 pounds) than the diet supplying the RDA amount of protein.
  • The high protein (28% and 42%) diets caused 2X less muscle loss (2.1 pounds versus 4.2 pounds) than the diet supplying the RDA amount of protein.
  • In case you didn’t notice, there was no difference in overall results between the 28% (2X the RDA) and 42% (3X the RDA) diets.

Pros And Cons Of The Study:

  • The con is fairly obvious. The participants in this study were all young, healthy and were not seriously overweight. If this were the only study of this type one might seriously question whether the results were applicable to middle aged, overweight coach potatoes. However, there have been several other studies with older, more overweight volunteers that have come to the same conclusion – namely that high protein diets preserve muscle mass and enhance fat loss.
  • The value of this study is that it defines for the first time the upper limit for how much protein is required to preserve muscle mass in a weight loss regimen. 28% of calories is sufficient, and there appear to be no benefit from increasing protein further. I would add the caveat that there are studies suggesting that protein requirements for preserving muscle mass may be greater in adults 50 and older.

The Bottom Line:

1)    Forget the high fat diets, low fat diets, pills and potions. High protein diets (~2X the RDA or 28% of calories) do appear to be the safest, most effective way to preserve muscle mass and enhance fat loss in a weight loss regimen.

2)     That’s not a lot of protein, by the way. The average American consumes almost 2X the RDA for protein on a daily basis. However, it is significantly more protein than the average American consumes when they are trying to lose weight. Salads and carrot sticks are great diet foods, but they don’t contain much protein.

3)     Higher protein intake does not appear to offer any additional benefit – at least in young adults.

4)     Not all high protein diets are created equal. What some people call high protein diets are laden with saturated fats or devoid of carbohydrate. The diet in this study, which is what I recommend, had 43% healthy carbohydrates and 30% healthy fats.

5)    These diets were designed to give 7 pounds of weight loss in 21 days – which is what the experts recommend. There are diets out there promising faster weight loss but they severely restrict calories and/or rely heavily on stimulants, they do not preserve muscle mass, and they often are not safe. In addition they are usually temporary.  I do not recommend them.

6)    This level of protein intake is safe for almost everyone. The major exception would be people with kidney disease, who should always check with their doctor before increasing protein intake. The only other caveat is that protein metabolism creates a lot of nitrogenous waste, so you should drink plenty of water to flush that waste out of your system. But, water is always a good idea.

7)     The high protein diets minimized, but did not completely prevent, muscle loss. Other studies suggest that adding the amino acid leucine to a high protein diet can give 100% retention of muscle mass in a weight loss regimen – but that’s another story for another day.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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