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Question : My son has attention deficit disorder (ADD). Should I be feeding him a lot of omega-3 fatty acids?
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The Trusted Source
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Howard LeWine, M.D.

Michael Craig Miller, M.D., is Senior Editor of Mental Health Publishing at Harvard Health Publications. He is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Miller is in clinical practice at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where he has been on staff for more than 25 years.

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January 22, 2014
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Omega-3 fatty acids, a type of essential fatty acid, are not a cure for ADD. But you should include them in your child’s diet anyway.

Your body needs omega-3 (and omega-6) fatty acids. They are called "essential fatty acids (EFAs)" because — literally — they’re essential.

Also, the body can’t make them. So we all must eat foods that contain them.

EFAs are used to build molecules in cell membranes. They are particularly important for brain health. That’s why they are discussed in connection with ADD.

Current research doesn’t demonstrate specific benefits of EFAs for ADD. But at the very least, we do know that your child’s brain needs them to grow on.

Why don’t you hear more about omega-6 fatty acids? That’s because omega-6 is a lot easier to come by. It’s in many of the foods we commonly eat, like vegetable oils, poultry, eggs, cereals and bread.

The best dietary source for omega-3s is fish and shellfish. A good list would include salmon, shrimp, albacore tuna, lake trout, herring and sardines. Because of their EFA content, they are sometimes called fatty or oily fish. (Don’t let the description put you or your children off.)

Also, especially in children, avoid fish that may have high levels of mercury, such as shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish. Check locally about warnings.

Nuts, seeds and oils are other good sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Specific examples are walnuts, flax seed and canola oil. Some green vegetables contain omega-3s too: Brussels sprouts, kale, spinach, and salad greens.

There is no need to overdo it for a child with ADD. But make sure to include the levels of omega-3 fatty acids that are recommended as part of a healthy diet. For children, that means eating up to 12 ounces (two average meals) a week of a variety of fish and shellfish that are low in mercury, along with daily plant sources of unsaturated fats.

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