Does Your Toddler Eat Enough Fish?
Researchers find that nearly half of U.S. toddlers and kids under age 5 don't eat any seafood and have diets low in fatty acids that are key to good health.
Kate Seeley’s 15-month-old can “put away scallops like a boss.” Amanda Noll’s toddler girls love salmon. And Brittany Renaenne Scott’s 4-year-old and 2-year-old’s seafood favorites run the gamut from flounder to cod.
“They usually get seconds when we have fish,” Scott, a Michigan mom, told BabyZone.
For all their enthusiasm, these children seem to be in a slim majority. A new study has found that just 54 percent of children between the ages of 1 and 5 eat fish at least once a month.
The Institute of Medicine recommends that children consume two 3-ounce servings of fish per week.
“According to our research, however, children are clearly not consuming this much fish,” said Dr. Sarah Keim, principal investigator in the Center for Biobehavioral Health at The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
Keim and her colleague, Dr. Amy Branum of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reviewed data on 2,500 children from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. In addition to determining fish intake, they analyzed the children’s diets to estimate how much kids consumed in the way of fatty acids, such as DHA and EPA of the omega-3 acid family, that are essential to human health. Fatty acids are found in both poultry and fish, but the latter is the richest source of these nutrients.
The results of the study, according to a statement released by Nationwide Children’s, were “troubling.”
Children’s intake of DHA, in particular, was found to be low — lower than the amount consumed by infants, who often ingest fatty acids through breast milk or formula. Overall, the intake of key fatty acids among U.S. children was “only a fraction of what is regularly consumed by young children in certain other countries, including Canada.”
In the U.S., fish intake varied by race, with non-Hispanic black children being more likely than non-Hispanic white children to have eaten fish.
“Because diet can be an important contributor to many diseases, it’s important to understand how such disparities might contribute to disease risk,” Keim said.
Keim says that a balanced diet should include fish. Though she says fish oil supplements are a way to consume fairly high doses of DHA and EPA quickly, she urges caution in giving supplements to children.
“Capsules can be difficult or dangerous for small children to take. There are child-friendly products — for example, gummies — containing fish oil. However, some of them have such small amounts of fish oil in them that may not be worth the effort,” she told BabyZone. “So it would be important to read the label if one wants to select a fish oil supplement.”
Keim also said that studies comparing health outcomes for adults who consume fish and adults who take fish oil supplements found that the former had better health outcomes.
“More research is needed in this area,” she said, “because it’s not entirely clear why this is.”
Several moms told BabyZone that they’d like to feed their children fish, but worry about water contamination and mercury levels.
Keim recommends following EPA guidance on selecting fish and shellfish, found here. The agency lists shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock and catfish as the most commonly eaten fish that are low in mercury. But even among commonly eaten fish, it’s important to be mindful of certain factors. The National Resources Defense Council warns that farmed salmon (as opposed to wild salmon) may contain high levels of dangerous chemicals known as PCBs, while the EPA urges consumers to check local fish advisories when considering eating fish caught by family and friends in local lakes, rivers and coastal areas.
Keim said that incorporating foods with omega-3 fatty acids into a child’s diet at a very young age will increase the likelihood that he will continue consuming fatty acids later in life and may have “long-lasting effects” on his health.
Keim isn’t the only researcher extolling the merits of fish for the very young; in 2012, researchers from the Netherlands found that fish consumption between the ages 6 and 12 months is associated with the reduced risk of asthma. (The USDA recommends parents observe babies closely when serving fin fish in case of allergic reactions and discourages feeding children any shellfish due to a risk of severe allergic reactions.)
For many, fish consumption is about more than just health — it’s about taste. Noll, a New Jersey mom, said her family eats fish about once a week, thanks in part to her and her husband’s own love of seafood.
“We love it and want our kids to eat what we eat.”
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