Exploring DHA deficiency in children

A lot of information has come out in recent years about the importance of DHA, and this omega-3 fatty acid is now appearing in unexpected places — from eggs to baby foods to milk. But why should we care about DHA?

Boy preparing fish for dinner

What is DHA?

DHA stands for “docosahexaenoic acid.” It is a polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acid and is considered a beneficial fat — critical for optimal development and function of the brain, eyes and central nervous system during infancy and childhood. The brain grows rapidly throughout the first years of life, and DHA usage by the brain is significant during this time. Numerous studies confirm that everyone, from infants to adults, benefits from an adequate supply of DHA in the diet. Yet despite its importance, most Americans don’t get enough DHA from the foods they eat.

DHA deficiency

Because DHA makes up a large portion of the brain and the retinas of the eyes, a deficiency could impair the development or function of these organs. Deficiency in DHA fatty acids has been linked to:

  • Impulsiveness
  • Aggressiveness
  • Dyslexia
  • Depression
  • Reduced intelligence
  • Sleep problems
  • Temper tantrums
  • Alcoholism
  • Schizophrenia
  • Manic depression

good sources of DHA

Babies get DHA from breastmilk, as long as the mother is getting enough; however, infant formulas are now being supplemented with DHA. When young children are weaned from breastmilk or formula to solid foods, their intake of DHA tends to decrease, probably because children typically don’t like the foods that contain it, such as:

  • Organ meats (Liver)
  • Seafood (especially Atlantic salmon, Pacific codfish and tuna)
  • Algae (Raising your eyebrows? The DHA added to food is made from algae or purified fish oil.)

concerns about Mercury

Fish is by far the richest natural source of omega-3 fatty acids, but with all the worries about mercury contamination, kids are eating less fish than ever — as they should. Children under 6 years old may eat half of a can (3 ounces) of chunk light tuna per week. In addition, they can have another seafood meal low in mercury that week, such as salmon, herring, sardines, anchovies, cod, shellfish, trout, pollock or catfish. Limit albacore tuna to one child-sized serving (3 ounces/half of a can or less) per week, and avoid any other fish that week. A young child’s portion size depends on her weight and ranges from 1 ounce for a 20-pound child to 3 ounces for a 60-pound child.


Nutritionist Barbara Levine, PhD, recommends that pregnant women get their DHA through algae-derived supplements, available in health food stores.


Benefits of DHA for adults

Studies have shown that DHA can help prevent heart disease and protect brain function, theoretically warding off the potential for Alzheimer’s in adults. DHA also promotes balanced levels of eicosanoids for joint health and mobility. And because it directly affects the nerves in the brain, it has been shown to help relieve depression symptoms.


The effects on children of a daily dose of DHA, in conjunction with a healthy diet, are incredibly positive. Look for the addition of DHA in foods not only for children, but for grownups, too.


Comments are closed.