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Long-chain Essential Fatty Acids (EFA) Requirements in Infants and Children for Lifelong Health

17 March 2012

Fats are a necessary part of dietary energy supply.  However the quality of dietary fats, particularly long-chain Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), plays critical roles in physiological functions such as central nervous system (CNS) development and visual function in infants and children.  In addition, the effect of dietary fats on lipids metabolism at an earlier age may be associated with cardiovascular mobidity and mortality in later life.

In recent years, there has been growing researches in the quality of dietary fat intake in early life as a major determinant of growth and development in children as well as long-term health.  The selection of dietary fatty acid sources during the first years of life is now considered to be of critical importance.

Lipids are structural components of all tissues and are indispensable for the assembly of membranes and cell organelles. The brain, retina and other neural tissues are particularly rich in long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs).  For example, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a type of long-chain omega-3 PUFA, is a critical component of cell membranes, especially in the brain and the retina, and plays an important role in brain and visual function, due to its high content in cerebral cortex and retinal phospholipids.  DHA is considered conditionally essential during early development in childhood.

During the first 6 months of life, dietary total fat should contribute 40–60% of total energy to cover the energy needed for growth and the fat required for tissue deposition. From age 6 months to 3 years, fat intake requirements are reduced gradually to approximately 30–35% of energy depending on the physical activity of the child.  Many health organizations recommend that daily DHA intake should be between 0.2-0.5% of total fat intake for infants.  The daily Omega-3 intake for prevention of nutrition-related chronic disease should ideally fall within 1-2% of total energy intake for children over 2-yrs of age.

Vegetarian source of fats has virtually no long-chain PUFA unless algae are included in the diet.  Fish is the major source of the two important PUFAs – DHA and EPA.  Recent scientific evidence have shown that direct supply of DHA and EPA in the diet provides many health benefits including retinal and brain development and function during early childhood, cardiovascular health, inflammatory response, and allergy.  Balanced dietary intake of beneficial fats in childhood can influence risk of Cardio Vascular Diseases (CVD) later in life.

In summary, lifelong intakes of EPA and DHA are associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome, as well as optimal mental development, behaviour, and immune response. Since the dietary intakes of EPA and DHA among infants and children in many western and non-western countries are lower than desirable on a unit of body weight basis and as percent of total energy, it is prudent that parents take measures to ensure that their children obtain optimal levels of EPA and DHA through diet and supplementation where required.

Source:
R Uauy and AD. Dangour; Ann Nutr Metab 2009;55:76–96

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