What Are Essential Fatty Acids?
The essential fatty acids are the fats that the body cannot produce on its own; just like essential nutrients, they have to be consumed. Structurally, they are long chain polyunsaturated fats. EFA’s are healthy, protective, and necessary for many reasons – but most of all for the brain development of young children.
Omega-6 (linoleic acid, LA) and omega-3 (alpha-linolenic acid, ALA) are the parent EFA’s, omega-3 for children being the more deficient of the two. From these two fatty acids all the other essential fatty acids are metabolized – GLA, AA, EPA, and DHA. The breakdown of omega-6 and omega-3 does require the presence of essential nutrients. In some cases, the body is still unable to create the EFA derivatives efficiently.
EFA’s are used for proper immune function, and brain and nerve cell development. Healthy skin, hair, and eyes are all signs of a diet rich in good sources of essential fatty acids. On a cellular level they are the major components of cell membranes. EFA phospholipids give membranes their fluidity. Without them, they become stiff and unable to serve as guardians of the cell, regulating the flow of materials. Disruption on a cellular level disturbs the body’s overall health and balance. Brain and nerve cells are extremely dependent on the fluidity of cell membranes.
Why Children Need EFA & Omega-3’s
Sixty percent of the brain is composed of fatty acids, one quarter of which is made up of omega-6 and omega-3. Also, one third of the dry weight of the eye retina is created from the same long chain polyunsaturated fats. Young children, who are rapidly growing, must have essential fatty acids to develop properly. The early years, especially the first two years of life, are absolutely critical.
Without a diet rich in EFA’s, children tend to have frequent infections, asthma, eczema, dry hair, vision problems, and learning disabilities. Signs of a deficiency include sweaty palms, excessive thirst, broken nails, dull hair, and itchy, patchy skin.
With the recent rise in cases of ADHD and other related illnesses among children, the health community is examining the role of EFA deficiencies in learning and behavioral disorders. Many studies support the importance of essential fatty acids for children. The Durham Trial, conducted in 2002, tested young children with neurodevelopmental disorders. They found significant improvements in concentration and behavior within months for those children who were taking EFA supplements.
The importance of omega-3 for children is more of an issue than omega-6. Children tend to consume a much higher ratio of omega-6 fatty acids, although a balance of the two EFA’s is needed. Eating an unbalanced omega diet puts children at risk for all kinds of problems, such as weak immune function, inflammation, liver damage, and learning disorders. Omega-3 fatty acids metabolize into both EPA and DHA, which are the key fatty acids for the eye and the brain. Mother’s milk is a well-balanced source of the full range of fatty acids.
Good Sources of Essential Fatty Acids
The best sources of omega-3 for children are from the sea. Although green algae may be difficult to sell to a two-year old, cold-water fish, such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, and herring are all incredible sources. Also, seafood is a direct source of DHA, one of the derivative EFA’s of omega-3. Flax seed is the next best source of omega-3 for children, followed by walnuts and wheat germ. Dried beans, including navy, northern, and kidney beans all supply small amounts of both omega fatty acids.
Omega-6 fatty acids are found in most vegetable oils – corn, soybean, safflower, cottonseed, sunflower, and evening primrose. Green vegetables, nuts, and legumes are all sources of omega-6.
They keys to ensuring that your child is getting enough EFA’s in their diet, and the proper ratio, are versatility and moderation. Serve fish once or twice a week, sprinkle a little wheat germ or flax seed into their yogurt smoothie, and add chopped walnuts to their salads. Not only will this enhance their well-being, it is the foundation of their development.
Page, Linda. Healthy Healing: A Guide to Self-Healing for Everyone, Eleventh Edition (Traditional Wisdom, 2003).
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