I’m sure you’ve noticed that many family restaurants offer special kids meals. These menu items usually contain smaller portions at a significantly reduced price and frequently offer foods that are easier for young children to manage (i.e., manipulate). This seems like a great idea, but usually comes at developmental detriment to child. It is all related to the types of foods offered. Usual meals include grilled cheese sandwiches, pasta dishes, breaded chicken (from grain-fed animals), hot dogs (again, from grain-fed animals), and French fries cooked in vegetable oil. Though there are several health concerns to discuss, the one of focus here is that these are foods that are very rich in omega-6 fatty acids and poor in omega-3 fatty acids. If you don’t know the significance of this, you should read on, as the health and cognitive ability of your child depends on it.
Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are special types of lipids that are essential to humans (i.e., we can’t manufacture them and we must acquire them in our diet). Though both are essential, modern diets receive too much omega-6 fatty acids (compared with indigenous and traditional diets), which has important health consequences, such as promoting inflammation and suppressing the functioning of the immune system. Foods rich in omega-6 fatty acids include pasta, bread, cereal, cakes, pastries, muffins, wraps, donuts—in other words, foods made from grain, as well as most nuts, vegetable oils made from soy, cotton seed, corn, and others, seed-like fruits (e.g., quinoa, amaranth, sesame), and grain-fed animals. Omega-3 fatty acids, on the other hand, suppress inflammation, promote the functioning of the immune system, and have important benefits for infant development. However, there are several types of omega-3 fatty acids, and not all of them have the same value to the body.
One type of omega-3 fatty acid is called docosahexaenoic acid (abbreviated DHA). DHA benefits infant development and has a crucial role in proper growth of the central nervous system (affecting cognitive function), it is vital for development of the eyes, promotes cardiovascular health, affects mood and aggression, and may have a key role in preventing autism and ADHD (due to its effects on neural development). DHA isn’t something that only newborn infants need—it is necessary for all age groups, and is vital in developing children (such as young children who can feed themselves at restaurants).
Where does one acquire DHA in the diet? There are many sources, with oily fish (e.g., herring, mackerel, salmon) and their roe being exceptional sources. Many animals that are fed biologically appropriate foods (e.g., wild animals, cows that are fed grass, chickens that roam over pastures and eat green plants and insects) contain DHA. Algae are also a source, though they are not as rich in this essential fatty acid as animal foods and supplementation with marine micro-algae is not entirely beneficial (but that is another article). DHA can be created in our body by converting the plant form of omega-3 fatty acid (alpha-linolenic acid or ALA), but this is done at a very poor conversion efficiency (around 5% in men, 0% in infants). So, while we do get a form of omega-3 fatty acids from flax, chia, walnuts, and many other omega-3-rich plant foods, these ultimately are poor sources of DHA for a developing child. The point of this paragraph: wild animals and properly raised, domesticated animals are the best sources of DHA. Plants, especially the land plants that we primarily consume in our diets, are very poor sources of this lipid.
So, the next time you go to a restaurant and sit down to a seafood dinner or grass-fed steak while your child gets something from the kids menu, realize that that meal is stunting their neural development. If anything, it is the child that should be eating the wild-caught salmon and parents eating macaroni and cheese. Why? Because the young child is still developing and critically needs DHA in the diet to form a healthy central nervous system, one that will lead to higher cognitive function and protect them from neural disorders, such as ADHD and Alzheimer’s Disease. Without realizing, we are feeding our children large amounts of omega-6-rich foods, setting them up for poor performance at an early age. If you choose to consume such dishes, they should be balanced with omage-3 rich foods. As a final thought: though feeding animals grain (including those not designed to eat grain, such as cows and salmon) makes for less expensive food, it comes back to haunt us in how it affects our children—which doesn’t sound like much of a bargain.