In an age of technological advancements, the reading habit has taken a backseat among many children of school-going age leading often to poor academic performance. This can lead to a host of problems in adulthood and the way to offset this is to have more DHA-fortified foods like fish, eggs, meat and, in case of vegetarians, algal-fortified supplements.
Such children may lack DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), a nutrient vital for brain development. Lack of DHA is linked to slower learning and lesser IQ, temper tantrums, aggressiveness, sleep problems and, in some cases, dyslexia.
A recent study by the University of Oxford showed the intake of algal or vegetarian DHA can significantly improve reading performance and behaviour among school-aged children.
"The DHA Oxford Learning and Behaviour (DOLAB) trial showed that taking daily algal DHA supplements improved reading performance for the worst readers and helped these children catch up with their peer group," said lead investigator Alex Richardson, Ph.D., senior research fellow at the University of Oxford and director of Food and Behaviour (FAB) Research.
"The study showed that dietary supplementation with DHA can improve the behaviour and attention of normal, healthy children, not just those with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and related conditions," Richardson told IANS via e-mail.
DHA accounts for 97 percent of the brain's omega-3 fatty acids. According to nutritionists, oily or fatty fish are good sources of DHA. Supplements or foods fortified with algal DHA, derived from the algae the fish consume, can provide sufficient levels of DHA.
The study, funded by DSM Nutritional Products, was conducted on 362 healthy children with low reading scores within the 7-9 year age group from mainstream schools in Britain.
Nandita Iyer, a Bangalore-based nutrition and lifestyle counsellor, said school-going children should get some form of supplementation in the form of DHA-rich foods, or in case of vegetarians, algal DHA-fortified drinks.
"The upper-class Indian children who suffer from malnutrition as a result of eating too much of the wrong kind of foods and getting sluggish in studies and other areas of mental development can really benefit from increased intake of algal DHA," Iyer told IANS.
DHA is mainly found in fish, eggs and meat. Oily fish like sardines, mackerel and trout are the richest sources of dietary DHA, having 10-100 times more of the nutrient than non-marine vegetarian sources like green leafy vegetables, nuts and whole grains.
Unless a child's diet is rich in oily fish, the only way to meet the daily requirement of 100 mg is to supplement it in the diet. But the best way to ensure a diet rich in DHA is to consume it directly.
Algal DHA is the same source that the fish depend on for their DHA. It is vegetarian, sustainable and is free from ocean-borne contaminants.
"DHA is of utmost importance to a developing baby during late pregnancy. The placenta extracts it from the mother's blood and concentrates it in the baby's circulation. As a result of this, the baby's levels of DHA are twice as high as its mother's. If the mother's levels of DHA are low, some DHA is also obtained from her richest store - her brain."
Until four months of age, a human body cannot produce DHA, so the only source is breast milk or DHA-enriched formulas. "Mothers who wean their babies early on and replace it with cow's milk instead of suitably-enriched formulas are creating a negative DHA balance in their children from an early age," Iyer added.
(Mohammed Shafeeq can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)