Ask the Doctor: Should Kids Take Fish Oil Supplements?

Question: A friend of mine is giving her 10-year-old fish oil supplements. Should I be doing the same for my daughter?

Answer: Fish oils are one of the most popular dietary supplements in use today. Even many commercial infant formulas are enriched with omega-3 fatty acids like DHA, the major health-promoting ingredients in fish oils. Omega-3 fatty acids, also called essential fatty acids because they’re necessary in our diets (our bodies don’t produce them), have been shown to have positive heart- and brain-protective effects. They’re also known to be anti-inflammatory and therefore may help to both prevent and treat certain allergic and inflammatory conditions, like asthma and eczema. Unfortunately, our diets are often deficient in the foods that provide omega-3s: fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, or vegetarian sources like flaxseeds. This is especially true for children who aren’t always the biggest fans of fish, although I’ve found that parents who add fish early into their children’s diets, even at 6 to 12 months, have more success in this regard.

In general, making sure your child gets plenty of omega-3 fatty acids is a good idea. While there’s no current U.S. RDA for omega-3s, based on the most current evidence, a healthy 10-year-old should likely get 500 to 1,000 mg per day, preferably through her diet. Just one three-ounce serving of salmon has 1,900 mg of omega-3s. If your child can’t get adequate amounts of omega-3s through food, then a supplement is a good alternative. Some people also choose supplements due to concerns about the toxicity of fish, and tend to use ones that are pharmaceutical-grade, an industry term for processes that remove toxins like heavy metals (mercury) and chemicals (PCBs). You can find more information on fish safety at the Environmental Protection Agency’s website (epa.gov/waterscience/fish). And of course, always talk to your pediatrician before starting your child on any supplements.

Lawrence D. Rosen, M.D., is the founder of the Whole Child Center in Oradell, New Jersey, one of the first green, integrative primary care practices in the U.S.

Have a question for Dr. Rosen? 
E-mail him at [email protected]

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