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The Great Omega-3 Dietary Deficit Crisis: Our Children and Our Society Are at Risk

Aug. 14, 2015|623 views
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This week I’ve been reporting on a timely topic: the inadequacy of the essential nutrients, omega-3 fatty acids, in the American diet, and the consequences of this nutritional deficit for society. In short, our bodies—and especially our brains and nervous systems—need omega-3s to work properly. But these nutrients come primarily from fish and fish oil. Accordingly, many Americans do not get enough of these crucial nutrients.

This sort of multi-generational malnourishment has serious consequences for both individuals and society, say researchers. Brains deprived of omega-3s don’t work optimally, and the result may be more aggressive and anti-social types of behaviors.

To prove this point, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, who specialize in a field called “neurocriminology” (the interplay between the brain and criminal-type behaviors) conducted an experiment recently on young children.

The randomized, controlled trial was simple. Working with 200 children, half received daily supplemental omega-3 fatty acids in a juice drink. The other half did not. Even investigators did not know which children were getting the nutrient and which were not. Parents were asked to rate their children on behaviors such as getting into fights or lying, as well as "internalizing" behaviors, such as depression, anxiety, and withdrawal.

“In the end, we saw a 42 percent reduction in scores on externalizing behavior and 62 percent reduction in internalizing behavior,” among children who got extra omega-3s, said investigator Adrian Raine. Of course, researchers caution that there’s still plenty of work to do, but they note that supplementing kids’ diets with a little extra omega-3s can’t hurt. "As a protective factor for reducing behavior problems in children," said researcher, Jianghong Liu, in a press release. "Nutrition is a promising option; it is relatively inexpensive and can be easy to manage.”

I think this underscores the crucial importance of good nutrition. It also represents a golden opportunity to do some good for your children, yourself, and even society at large. Make sure your family is getting enough of these nutrients. Add healthful fish, such as salmon, to your diet, or consider supplementing regularly with inexpensive fish oil pills. You can also add more walnuts and flaxseed into your diet, but vegetarians should be aware that the body is highly inefficient at converting the plant form of omega-3, called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), into the forms it needs; DHA and EPA. As such, it may be difficult for you to get enough of these nutrients from plant sources alone.

Adrian Raine, Jill Portnoy, Jianghong Liu, Tashneem Mahoomed, Joseph R. Hibbeln. Reduction in behavior problems with omega-3 supplementation in children aged 8-16 years: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, stratified, parallel-group trial. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 2015; 56 (5): 509 DOI: 10.1111/jcpp.12314