Certain nutrients are essential to the health and well-being of your growing child. Here's what to keep in mind when it comes to DHA.


What it is:

DHA, short for docosahexaenoic acid, is one of two key long-chain omega-3 fatty acids that occur throughout the body (the other is EPA, or eicosapentaenoic acid). It's a major structural fat in the brain and retina. It's important to know that there are two types of polyunsaturated fatty acids: omega-3s and the short-chain omega-6 linoleic acid, which is found in seeds, nuts, and certain oils. The body needs both, but most people today consume 10 times more omega-6s than omega-3s, when in reality they should be eating more of the latter.

How it helps:

Children need DHA primarily for healthy brain development. Because when their brains’ four critical areas (Intellectual, Motor, Emotional, and Communication) are properly nourished and stimulated, they can achieve so much more.

Where it's found:

The best food source for DHA is fatty coldwater fish, such as salmon, bluefin tuna, black cod, sardines, and herring. DHA is also found in shellfish and organ meats. Smaller fish that are low on the food chain are generally the safest sources, because they contain fewer toxins. Among them are catfish, shrimp, wild salmon, pollack, and tuna (canned chunk light tuna has as much as three times less mercury than albacore tuna).

Because it's relatively easy to derive omega-3 fatty acids from fish oils, it's possible to get DHA through supplements. Ask your pediatrician if a supplement would be right for your child and for a suggested variety.

What else to know:

The body produces only small amounts of DHA on its own, so food sources or supplements are necessary. Pregnant women and women who hope to conceive soon should avoid higher-chain seafood—such as shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish—as they're higher in mercury than other seafood sources.

Surprising fact:

Fish is sometimes called brain food, in large part because it is the prime source of DHA, which contributes so heavily to healthy brain development.

• Coletta, J. M., Bell, S. J., & Roman, A. S. (2010). Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Pregnancy. Rev Obstet Gynecol. 3 (4): 163-171.
• Innis, S. M., & Elias, S. L. (2003). Intakes of essential n6 and n3 polyunsaturated fatty acids among pregnant Canadian women. Am J Clin Nutr. 77:473–8.
• March of Dimes. (n.d.). Vitamins and Minerals During Pregnancy. March of Dimes. Retrieved from:http://www.marchofdimes.com/pregnancy/nutrition_vitamins.html
• National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition. (2012). For Moms and Babies, Fish is Brain Food After All!! HMHB. Retrieved from:http://www.hmhb.org/2012/11/fish-is-brain-food/
• National Institutes of Health. (n.d.). Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Health. NIH. Retrieved from: http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcidsandHealth-HealthProfess...
• Oceana. (n.d.). Canned Tuna vs. Canned Salmon. Retrieved from: http://oceana.org/en/our-work/stop-oceanpollution/mercury/learn-act/lear...
• Otten, J. J., Hellwig, J. P., Meyers, L. D. (Ed.). (n.d.). Fatty Acids. Dietary Reference Intakes: The Essential Guide to Nutrient Requirements. National Academics Press. Retrieved from: http://www.nap.edu/catalog/11537.html
• University of Maryland. (n.d.). Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA). University of Maryland Medical System. Retrieved from: http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/docosahexaenoic-acid-dha
• USDA. (n.d.). Infant Nutrition and Feeding. United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved from:http://wicworks.nal.usda.gov/infants/infant-feeding-guide
• U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (n.d.). What You Need to Know About Mercury in Fish and Shellfish (Brochure). FDA. Retrieved from: http://www.fda.gov/food/resourcesforyou/consumers/ucm110591.htm