Should children take EPA/DHA supplements?

If they aren’t getting enough via their diet—which most don’t—then absolutely, says Gretchen Vannice, RD, a Portland-based consultant who specializes in omega-3 fatty acids.

“I would recommend it for all kids who are not eating fish regularly.”

In addition to nurturing cells in growing organs, and providing a lipid barrier that plumps up skin—making the complexion and hair look more healthy (a bonus for teens)—the long chain fatty acids may also play an important role in combating attention deficits and behavior issues, she says.

“We know that children with ADHD and other problems with focus have lower levels ofomega-3 fatty acids in their blood compared with other children, and there have been some clinical trials showing there is benefit to supplementation.”

One June 2012 study, published in the journal Nutrition, looked at 90 children, ages 7 to 12, who rated high on measures of ADHD. Some were given 500 mg EPA/DHA-rich fish oil, while others were given safflower oil. After four months, those who saw a boost in DHA in their blood saw significant improvements in reading and fewer behavior problems.

Another trial, published by University of Oxford  researchers in 2012, looked at 224 kids between ages 7 and 9 who scored poorly on school reading tests, and found the poorest readers saw scores improve by as much as 50 percent above what was expected after supplementing with 600 mg daily of algae-based DHA.

Not all studies have been so encouraging. One recent Cochrane review of 13 trials with 1,011 participants found “little evidence that supplementation provides any benefit for the symptoms of ADHD,” and lamented the small sample size and other weaknesses in existing studies.

Vannice agrees that more research is needed on the EPA/DHA-behavior link. But for now, there are plenty of other reasons kids should be sure they’re getting enough as their bodies are forming.

“It’s like making a cake,” she says. “If you forget the oil, the recipe is just not going to be quite right.”

She recommends 500 mg daily via food and supplements, and warns that many fish sticks and white fish (like tilapia) contain almost no EPA/DHA. (Eat tuna and salmon instead).

For parents buying supplements for their kids, consider liquid formulations and chewable capsules until they can swallow pills. Steer clear of gummies, which tend to have little EPA/DHA and more sugar, she says.