Is Diabetes Increasing In Our Children?

Why Is Diabetes Increasing In Our Children? 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Last week I shared a study documenting the alarming increase in ultraprocessed food consumption by our children and the effect it was having on their health (https://chaneyhealth.com/healthtips/are-we-killing-our-children-with-kindness/). For example, childhood obesity is closely linked to ultraprocessed food consumption.

In case you don’t understand why that is, here is what I said last week: “Because ultraprocessed foods are made in a factory, not grown on a farm:

  • They are high in fat, sugar, and refined carbohydrates. That means they have a high caloric density. Each bite has 2-3 times the calories found in a bite of fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Even worse, the food industry has weaponized our natural cravings for sweet, salty, and fatty foods. They feed their prototypes to a series of consumer tasting panels until they find the perfect blend of sugar, salt, and fat to create maximum craving.
  • And if that weren’t enough, they add additives to create the perfect flavor and “mouth appeal”.
    • It is no wonder that clinical studies have found a strong correlation between high intake of ultraprocessed food and obesity in both children and adults.
    • It is also no wonder that the rate of childhood obesity has almost quadrupled in the last 40 years.”

Unfortunately, whenever you see an increase in obesity, type 2 diabetes is not far behind. Several studies have reported a dramatic increase in type 2 diabetes in our children over the last 20 years.

Because diabetics can manage their blood sugar levels with insulin and/or a variety of drugs, many people consider it as just an inconvenience. Nothing could be further from the truth. Diabetes is a deadly disease, and it is even deadlier when it appears early in life.

You probably already know that long-term complications of diabetes include heart disease and irreversible damage to nerves, kidneys, eyes, and feet. But you may not have known that childhood diabetes is more dangerous than diabetes in adults because:

  • It is more challenging to manage in children.
  • The complications of diabetes start to show up much earlier in life and affect quality of life at a much earlier age. For example:
    • Cardiovascular events occur 15 years earlier in someone with diabetes.
    • On average, a 50-year-old with diabetes will die 6 years earlier than someone without diabetes.
    • On average, a 10-year-old with diabetes will die 19 years earlier than a child without diabetes.

The study (JM Lawrence et al, JAMA, 326: 717-727, 2021) I will discuss today is the largest and most comprehensive study of childhood diabetes to date.

How Was This Study Done?

Clinical StudyThe data for this study were obtained from the SEARCH For Diabetes In Youth Study. This study collected data on physician-diagnosed cases of diabetes in 3.47 million children ages 19 or younger from 6 geographical areas in the US in 2001, 2009, and 2017.

The 6 geographical areas were:

  • Southern California (7 counties, including Los Angeles).
  • Colorado (14 counties, including Denver).
  • Ohio (8 counties, including Cincinnati)
  • South Carolina (4 counties, including Columbia).
  • Washington State (5 counties, including Seattle).
  • Indian Health Service users in select areas of Arizona and New Mexico.

The data on diabetes diagnoses were obtained by creating active surveillance networks composed of pediatric and adult endocrinologists, other clinicians, hospitals, and health plans in the study areas.

Is Diabetes Increasing In Our Children?

IncreaseTo answer this question let’s start with a historical perspective:

  • In 1950 obesity in US children was rare and type 2 diabetes in children was practically unknown.
    • Since then, obesity rates have skyrocketed, and type 2 diabetes has followed along behind it.
  • Between 1925 and 1950 the prevalence of type 1 diabetes in US children remained constant, but it has been steadily increasing since 1950.
    • Type 1 diabetes remains more prevalent than type 2 diabetes in our children, but the prevalence of type 2 diabetes has been increasing faster than type 1 diabetes.

Now let’s look at the results from the SEARCH For Diabetes In Youth Study:

Prevalence of Type 2 Diabetes:

  • The prevalence of type 2 diabetes in US children aged 10-19 increased from 0.34/1000 youths in 2001, to 0.46/1000 youths in 2009, to 0.67/1000 youths in 2017.
    • This is a 94% increase between 2001 and 2017. Put another way, the prevalence of type 2 diabetes in our children has almost doubled in just 16 years!
    • The greatest increase was seen among Black (0.85/1000 youths), Hispanic (0.57/1000 youths), and American Indian (0.42/1000 youths) population groups.
  • These data are consistent with 3 previous studies reporting a doubling of type 2 diabetes in children over similar time periods.

Note: Since data collection ended in 2017, this study does not take into account the increase in type 2 diabetes caused by increased body weight and reduced activity in children during the pandemic. There are no firm data on the increase in type 2 diabetes in children during the pandemic, but some hospitals have reported increases of 50% to 300% in new diagnoses of type 2 diabetes in 2020.

Prevalence of Type 1 Diabetes:

  • The prevalence of type 1 diabetes in US children aged 19 and younger increased from 1.48/1000 youths in 2001, to 1.93/1000 youths in 2009, to 2.15/1000 youths in 2017.
  • This is a 45% increase between 2001 and 2017.
    • The greatest increase was seen among White (0.93/1000 youths), Black (0.89/1000 youths), and Hispanic (0.59/1000 youths) population groups.
    • These data are consistent with a similar study of type 1 diabetes in children in Holland.

In summary:

  • This study documents a dramatic increase in the prevalence of both type 1 and type 2 diabetes in US children between 2001 and 2017.
  • Type 2 diabetes is still less prevalent than type 1 diabetes in US children, but it is increasing twice as fast.

Why Is Diabetes Increasing In Our Children?

Question MarkWhen it comes to type 2 diabetes, the experts agree:

  • The increase in type 2 diabetes in children is directly related to the obesity epidemic, which is now impacting our children. The obesity epidemic is, in turn, caused by:
    • Decreased exercise. Video games and social media have replaced actual games played outside.

However, when it comes the increase in type 1 diabetes, the experts are perplexed. There is no easy explanation. Let’s start with the basics:

  • Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease. With type 1 diabetics, their immune system starts attacking the insulin-producing beta cells in their pancreas. Consequently, they lose the ability to produce insulin.
  • The autoimmune response seen in type 1 diabetes is caused by a combination of genes and environment. Specifically:
    • Certain genes predispose to type 1 diabetes. However:
      • Only some people with those genes develop type 1 diabetes.
      • Our genetics doesn’t change with time, so genetics cannot explain the increases in type 1 diabetes we are seeing.
  • That leaves the environment. There are many hypotheses about how our children’s environment influences their risk of developing type 1 diabetes. However:
    • Some of these hypotheses involve things that have not changed over the last 15-20 years. They cannot explain the increase in type1 diabetes we are seeing in children.
    • Some of these hypotheses are not supported by good data. They are speculative.

With that in mind, I will list the top 5 current hypotheses and evaluate each of them.

#1: The viral infection hypothesis: Basically, this hypothesis states that type 1 diabetes can be triggered by child with flucommon viral infections such as the flu.

  • This is a plausible hypothesis. Whenever our immune system is stimulated by invaders it sometimes goes rogue and triggers autoimmune responses.
  • It is also supported by good data. The onset of type 1 diabetes is often associated with a viral infection in genetically susceptible children.
  • However, prior to the pandemic viral infections have been constant. They haven’t changed over time. Therefore, they cannot explain an increase in type 1 diabetes between 2001 and 2017.

#2: The hygiene hypothesis: Basically, this hypothesis states that when we raise our children in a sterile environment, their immune system doesn’t develop normally. Essentially the hypothesis is saying that it’s not a bad thing if your toddler eats some dirt and moldy fruits. However:

  • The data linking hygiene to food allergies is better than the data linking hygiene to autoimmune responses.
  • There is no evidence that hygiene practices have changed significantly between 2001 and 2017.

#3: The vitamin D hypothesis: Basically, this hypothesis states that vitamin D deficiency is associated with the autoimmune response that causes type 1 diabetes.

  • One of the functions of vitamin D is to regulate the immune system.
  • As I have reported previously, suboptimal vitamin D levels are associated with increased risk of developing type 1 diabetes.
  • While we know that up to 61% of children in the US have suboptimal vitamin D levels, we don’t know whether that percentage has changed significantly in recent years.

happy gut bacteria#4: The gut bacteria hypothesis: Basically, this hypothesis suggests that certain populations of gut bacteria increase the risk of developing type 1 diabetes. This is what we know.

  • Children who develop type 1 diabetes have a unique population of gut bacteria.
  • This population of gut bacteria also triggers inflammation, and chronic inflammation can lead to autoimmune responses.
  • A diet rich in highly processed foods supports growth of the same gut bacteria found in children with type 1 diabetes.
  • Consumption of highly processed foods has increased significantly in the last twenty years.

#5: The obesity hypothesis: Basically, this hypothesis suggests that obesity increases the risk of developing type 1 diabetes.

  • While the mechanism is not clear, childhood obesity is associated with both inflammatory and autoimmune diseases like type 1 diabetes.
  • Childhood obesity has increased dramatically in the past few years.

As you may have noticed, there are weaknesses to each of these hypotheses. This is why there is no current agreement among experts as to why type 1 diabetes is increasing in our children.

My guess is that none of these hypotheses can fully explain the increase in type 1 diabetes in our children, but that several of them may contribute to it.

What Can We Do?

Family Riding BicyclesWhatever the mechanism, the increase in both type 1 and type 2 diabetes in our children is troubling. Unless this trend is reversed, we may be dooming our children to short, unhealthy lives. So, what can we, as concerned parents and grandparents, do?

For type 2 diabetes, the answer is clear.

1) Reverse the dominance of ultraprocessed foods in children’s diets. Encourage the consumption of whole, unprocessed or minimally processed foods, and include lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. Set a good example as well.

2) Encourage more activity. Get them outside and moving. Create family activities that involve exercise.

3) Reverse the obesity epidemic. If we succeed in reversing the dominance of ultraprocessed foods in their diet and encouraging more activity, we can reverse the obesity epidemic without putting our children on crazy diets.

For type 1 diabetes, the answer is less clear because the cause for the increase in type 1 diabetes is uncertain. However, I will point out that:

1) Increased consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes supports the growth of friendly gut bacteria that reduce inflammation and the risk of autoimmune diseases. For more detail on an anti-inflammatory diet, click here.

2) Reversing the obesity epidemic also reduces inflammation and the risk of autoimmune diseases.

3) Adequate vitamin D levels reduce the risk of autoimmune diseases, including type 1 diabetes. My recommendation is to get your 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels tested and supplement with vitamin D3 as needed, especially during the winter months.

The Bottom Line

Last week I shared a study documenting the alarming increase in ultraprocessed food consumption by our children and the effect it was having on their health. For example, childhood obesity is closely linked to ultraprocessed food consumption, and the rate of childhood obesity has almost quadrupled in the last 40 years.

Unfortunately, whenever you see an increase in obesity, type 2 diabetes is not far behind. This week’s study looked at the prevalence of childhood diabetes in 3.47 million children from 6 geographical areas of the United States between 2001 and 2017. This study found:

  • The prevalence of type 2 diabetes in US children increased 94% between 2001 and 2017. It almost doubled.
  • The prevalence of type 1 diabetes in US children increased 45% between 2001 and 2017.

These statistics are tragic because diabetes is a deadly disease.

You probably already know that long-term complications of diabetes include heart disease and irreversible damage to nerves, kidneys, eyes, and feet. But you may not have known that childhood diabetes is more dangerous than diabetes in adults because:

  • It is more challenging to manage in children.
  • The complications of diabetes start to show up much earlier in life and affect quality of life at a much earlier age. For example:
    • Cardiovascular events occur 15 years earlier in someone with diabetes.
    • On average, a 50-year-old with diabetes will die 6 years earlier than someone without diabetes.
    • On average, a 10-year-old with diabetes will die 19 years earlier than a child without diabetes.

For more details about this study, why the prevalence of diabetes in US children is increasing, and what we can do about it, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease

Are We Killing Our Children With Kindness?

The Danger Of Ultraprocessed Foods 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

fast foodIt breaks my heart when I see a mom and her children in the checkout line of a supermarket with a cart filled with sodas, sweets, and convenience foods and devoid of fresh fruits and vegetables – or when I see fast food restaurants packed with parents and their children.

I get it. Our kids love these foods. It seems like an act of kindness to give them the foods they crave. But are we killing our children with kindness?

Let me explain. The human brain is hardwired to crave sweets, salt, and fat. In prehistoric times each of these cravings had a survival benefit. For example:

  • Mother’s milk is naturally sweet. It only makes sense that babies should crave the nutrition source that is essential for their early growth and development.
  • Fruits provide a cornucopia of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. But fruits were scarce and seasonal in prehistoric times. Their sweetness provided an incentive for early man to seek them out.
  • Some salt is essential for life. Yet in early history it was scare. It was worth its weight in gold.
  • In prehistoric times it was feast or famine. The human body has an unlimited capacity to store fat in times of plenty, and those fat stores carried early man through times of famine.

Today most Americans live in a time of food abundance. There are fast food restaurants on almost every street corner and in every shopping mall. We think of famine as the days we skipped lunch because we were busy.

Yet these cravings remain, and the food industry has weaponized them. They are churning out an endless supply highly processed foods and beverages. These foods are not being designed to improve their nutritional value. They are designed to satisfy our cravings and lure us and our children into consuming more of them every year.

Scientists have developed a classification system that assigns foods in the American diet to different groups based on the degree of processing of that food. As you might expect, the best classification is unprocessed foods. The worst classification is called “ultraprocessed foods”. [I will describe this classification system in more detail in the next section.]

It is time we asked how much ultraprocessed foods our children are eating and what it is doing to their health. That is the topic of the study (L Wang et al, JAMA, 326: 519-530, 2021) I will discuss today.

How Was This Study Done?

Clinical StudyThe data for this study were obtained from NHANES (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey) dietary data collected from 33,795 American children (ages 2-19, average age = 10) between 1999 and 2018.

NHANES is a program conducted by the CDC to survey the health and nutritional status of adults and children in the United States. The survey has been conducted on a continuous, yearly basis since 1999.

The dietary data are collected via 24-hour dietary recalls conducted by trained interviewers, with a second recall administered over the phone 3-10 days later to improve the accuracy of the data.

  • Children aged 12-19 completed the dietary survey on their own.
  • For children aged 6-11, a parent or guardian assisted them in filling out the survey.
  • For children aged 2-5, a parent or guardian filled out the survey for them.

The foods and beverages consumed by the children were divided into 4 major groups based on the extent of processing using a well-established classification system called NOVA. The 4 groups are:

1) Unprocessed Or Minimally Processed Foods.

  • This includes whole foods and foods that are minimally processed without the addition of oils, fats, sugar, salt, or other ingredients to the food.
  • Examples of minimally processed foods include things like oatmeal, nut butters, dried fruit, frozen fruits or vegetables, and dried beans.

2) Processed Culinary Ingredients.

  • This includes recipes from restaurants or in-home cooking that add small amounts of oils, fats, sugar, salt, and seasonings to whole foods.

3) Processed Foods

  • This includes foods made in factories by the addition of salt, sugar, oil, or other substances added to whole or minimally processed foods.
  • Examples include tomato paste, canned fruits packed in sugar syrup, cheese, smoked or cured meat.

4) Ultraprocessed Foods

  • These are industrial formulations created in factories mostly or entirely from substances extracted from foods (oils, fats, sugar, starch, and proteins), derived from food constituents (hydrogenated fats and modified starch), or synthesized in laboratories (flavor enhancers, colors, and food additives).
  • Examples include sugar sweetened beverages; sweet or savory packaged snacks; chocolates and candies; burgers, hot dogs, and sausages; poultry and fish nuggets, pastries, cakes, and cake mixes.

Are We Killing Our Children With Kindness?

Obese ChildAs I said above, the important question is, “Are we killing our children with kindness when we give them the sugary drinks, sweets, convenience foods, and fast foods they crave?” After all, the foods we give them when they are young are the ones they are most likely to select when they get older.

Let’s start by looking at how pervasive these foods have become. That was the purpose of the study I am discussing today, and the results of this study are alarming. When they looked at the changes in food consumption by our children between 1999 and 2018:

  • The percentage of calories from ultraprocessed foods increased from 61.4% to 67%. That means:
    • Today, more than 2/3 of the calories our children consume daily come from ultraprocessed foods!
  • The percentage of calories from unprocessed and minimally processed foods decreased from 28.8% to 23.5%. That means:
    • In the span of just 19 years the diets of our children have gone from bad to worse!
  • Ultraprocessed foods were more likely to be consumed away from home and at fast food restaurants.

When the investigators looked at individual categories of ultraprocessed foods:

  • The percentage of calories coming from ready to heat and eat dishes like frozen pizzas and other frozen meals or snacks increased from 2.2% to 11.2%.
  • The percentage of calories coming from sweet snacks and desserts increased from 10.7% to 12.9%.
  • The percentage of calories coming from sugar sweetened beverages decreased from 10.8% to 5.3%.
    • This is potentially the only good news from this study.

The authors concluded. “Based on NHANES data from 1999 to 2018, the estimated energy intake from consumption of ultraprocessed foods has increased among youths in the US and has consistently comprised the majority of their total energy intake.”

“These results suggest that food processing may need to be considered as a food dimension in addition to nutrients and food groups in future dietary recommendations and food policies.”

The Danger Of Ultraprocessed Foods

Fast Food DangersThis study clearly shows that ultraprocessed foods have become the mainstay of our children’s diets. Forget a balanced diet! Forget “Eat your fruits and vegetables”! Our children’s diets have been fundamentally transformed by “Big Food, Inc”.

You might be saying to yourself, “So, they are eating their favorite processed foods. What’s the big deal? How bad can it be?” My answer is, “Pretty Bad”. I chose the title, “Are we killing our children with kindness”, for a reason.

When you look at what happens to children who eat a diet that is mostly ultraprocessed foods:

#1: Their nutrition suffers. When the investigators divided the children into 5 groups based on the percentage of calories coming from ultraprocessed foods, the children consuming the most ultraprocessed food had:

  • Significantly higher intakes of carbohydrates (mostly refined carbohydrates); total fats; polyunsaturated fats (mostly highly processed omega-6-rich vegetable oils); and added sugars.
  • Significantly lower intakes of fiber; protein; omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids; calcium; magnesium; potassium; zinc; vitamins A, C, D, and folate.
    • The low intake of fiber means our children will be less likely to have health-promoting friendly bacteria and more likely to have disease-promoting bad bacteria in their guts.
    • The low intake of calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D means they will be less likely to achieve maximum bone density as young adults and will be more likely to suffer from osteoporosis as they age.

#2: They are more likely to become obese. Remember, these are foods that are made in a factory, not grown on a farm.

  • They are high in fat, sugar, and refined carbohydrates. That means they have a high caloric density. Each bite has 2-3 times the calories found in a bite of fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • As I said earlier, the food industry has weaponized our natural cravings for sweet, salty, and fatty foods. They feed their prototypes to a series of consumer tasting panels until they find the perfect blend of sugar, salt, and fat to create maximum craving.
  • And if that weren’t enough, they add additives to create the perfect flavor and “mouth appeal”.
    • It is no wonder that clinical studies have found a strong correlation between high intake of ultraprocessed food and obesity in both children and adults.
    • It is also no wonder that the rate of childhood obesity has almost quadrupled (5% to 18.5%) in the last 40 years.

#3: They are more likely to become sick as adults and die prematurely.

  • Obesity; high intake of fat, sugar, and refined carbohydrates; and low intake of fiber, omega-3s, and essential nutrients all contribute to an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers.
    • It is no wonder that clinical studies have found a strong correlation between high intake of ultraprocessed food and increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, some cancers, and premature death in adults.
    • It is also no wonder a recent study found that type 2 diabetes in children has almost doubled between 2001 and 2017.

The data are clear. When we allow our children to subsist on a diet mostly made up of the ultraprocessed foods they crave, we may be giving them, not love, but a lifetime of obesity and declining health instead. And yes, we may be killing them with kindness.

Instead, my recommendations are:

  • expose your children to a variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, and minimally processed foods at an early age.
  • They will reject some of them, and that’s OK. Introduce others until you find whole, minimally processed foods they like. Reintroduce them to some of the foods they initially rejected as they get older.
  • Don’t keep tempting ultraprocessed foods in your house.
  • You may just succeed in putting your children on the path to a healthier diet and a healthier, longer life.

The Bottom Line

It breaks my heart when I see a mom and her children in the checkout line of a supermarket with a cart filled with sodas, sweets, and convenience foods and devoid of fresh fruits and vegetables – or when I see fast food restaurants packed with parents and their children.

I get it. Our kids love these foods. It seems like an act of kindness to give them the foods they crave. But are we killing our children with kindness?

It is time we asked how much ultraprocessed foods our children are eating and what it is doing to their health. A recent study did just that. When they looked at the changes in food consumption by our children between 1999 and 2018:

  • The percentage of calories from ultraprocessed foods increased from 61.4% to 67%. That means:
    • Today, more than 2/3 of the calories our children consume daily come from ultraprocessed foods!
  • The percentage of calories from unprocessed and minimally processed foods decreased from 28.8% to 23.5%. That means:
    • In the span of just 19 years the diets of our children have gone from bad to worse!

This study clearly shows that ultraprocessed foods have become the mainstay of our children’s diets. Forget a balanced diet! Forget “Eat your fruits and vegetables”! Our children’s diets have been fundamentally transformed by “Big Food, Inc”.

You might be saying to yourself, “So, they are eating their favorite processed foods. What’s the big deal? How bad can it be?” My answer is, “Pretty Bad”. I chose the title, “Are we killing our children with kindness”, for a reason.

When you look at what happens to children who eat a diet that is mostly ultraprocessed foods:

  • Their nutrition suffers.
  • They are more likely to become obese.
  • They are more likely to become sick as adults and die prematurely.

For more details about this study, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Can Fish Oil Make Children Smarter?

When Do Omega-3 Supplements Make Sense?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Confused ChildWe know that the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil are critically important for brain development. But will they really help our kids learn better? Some studies suggest that they do, while other studies have come up empty. Why is this? More importantly, what does it mean for your children? Will fish oil supplements help or not?

I’ve selected today’s study (Portillo-Reyes et al, Research in Developmental Disabilities, 35: 861-870, 2014) because it sheds some light on those important questions.

Can Fish Oil Make Children Smarter?

This study looked at the effect of supplementation for 3 months with 360 mg of EPA + DHA on cognitive function of malnourished Mexican children, ages 8-12 years old. The children came from poor neighborhoods where foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids were seldom available. Low intake of omega-3 fatty acids was confirmed by a food frequency survey.

Cognition was assessed based on a battery of 16 standardized cognition tests at the beginning of the study and again 3 months later.

The results were fairly clear cut. The children receiving the fish oil supplements showed significant gains in mental processing speed, visual-motor coordination, perceptual integration, attention span and executive function compared to children receiving a placebo. In case you were wondering, the first three most strongly affect a child’s ability to learn and last two affect their tendency to display ADHD symptoms.

What Is the Significance of This Study?

There are a lot of things not to like about the study:

  • It was a small study (59 children total)
  • Blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids were not determined.
  • It was a short term study (12 months would have been better).
  • Measuring the ability to learn is difficult. Experts in the field differ about which cognitive tests are best. I’m not taking a position on the adequacy of the tests they were using because that is not my area of expertise.
  • Because it was done in a poor region of Mexico, one could argue that its applicability to children in this country is uncertain.

 

So why even mention this study? That’s because it illustrates an important principle – one that is often ignored in the design and interpretation of clinical studies.

Simply put, the principle is that not everyone will benefit equally from supplementation. It is the malnourished and the sick who will benefit most. When you focus your clinical studies on those groups you are most likely to observe a benefit of supplementation. When you focus your study on well nourished, healthy individuals it will be much more difficult to observe any benefit. And if you perform a meta-analysis of all studies, without evaluating the studies on the basis of need – nutrition status and health status – benefits will also be much more difficult to demonstrate.

This study is just one example of that principle. In an earlier “Health Tips From the Professor” (Can DHA Help Johnny Read?) I reported on a study looking at the effect of DHA supplementation on reading ability of English schoolchildren. In that study, it was the children who were most deficient in DHA and started with the lowest reading skills who benefitted most from DHA supplementation.

What does all of this mean to you?

  • If you are a parent, you may be asking if a study done with Mexican children eating poor diets has any relevance for your kids. In today’s world of pop tarts and pizza it just might. Most children don’t order sardines on their pizza. As a consequence, many American children don’t get enough omega-3 fatty acids in their diet.
  • Should your children be getting more omega-3s in their diet? A recent study concluded that most American children only get 20-40 mg/day of DHA from their diet. So if your child’s food preferences don’t include salmon, sardines and the like – and if your child is experiencing learning issues or problems with ADHD, you might consider adding fish oil supplements to their diet. There’s no need to megadose. The international standard is around 200 mg/day of DHA for children 7 or older.
  • If you are one of those people who is confused by conflicting headlines about the benefits of supplementation, you may want to look at the studies behind those headlines and ask if supplementation would have been likely to provide any benefit in the subjects studied.

The Bottom Line:

1)     A recent study reported that supplementation with fish oil significantly improved learning skills in children consuming a diet that was deficient in omega-3 fatty acids.

2)     If your children are not consuming foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as coldwater fish, you might wish to make sure that they are getting adequate levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their diet. Most experts recommend around 200 mg/day for children over 7.

3)     This study also illustrates the principle that supplementation is most likely to be of demonstrable benefit to those who have the worst diets and the greatest need. That doesn’t mean that supplementation won’t benefit everyone, but it does mean that it may be difficult to prove the value of supplementation in healthy people consuming a good diet.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

 

Could Omega-3s Improve Reading Skills?

Can DHA  Help Johnny Read?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Child-Reading-BookIf you are like most parents, you want to do everything you can to assure that your kids have the skills they need to succeed in school, and reading probably tops the list of necessary skills. If your child is reading below their age level, could something as simple as better nutrition improve their reading ability?

Recent studies have shown that the omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA, play a very important role in normal brain function – especially memory, focus, concentration, and attention span.

I have shared with you previous studies which have shown that optimal DHA intake in pregnant women plays an important role in the early mental development of their children. On the other end of the age spectrum, studies have shown that optimal omega-3 fatty acid intake in older adults can delay cognitive decline.

I have also shared with you studies showing that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation in children with ADD and ADHD significantly reduce their symptoms. What about children without hyperactivity? Could omega-3 fatty acids affect their ability to learn?

Many Children Are Deficient in Omega-3 Fatty Acids

The Food and Nutrition Board has not yet set US standards for DHA intake, but the international standard is 200 mg for children 7 years old and older. Unfortunately, cod liver oil is a thing of the past, and foods rich in DHA are not particularly popular with children. Consequently, most children in this country are only getting around 20-40 mg of DHA per day.

And that shows up in their blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids. A recent study in England looked at blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids in 493 seven to nine year olds with below average reading performance who were enrolled in Oxfordshire primary schools (P. Montgomery et al, PLoS ONE, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0066697).

All of them had low blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids (both DHA and EPA), and the blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids were directly related to their reading ability. In non-scientific language that simply means that those with the poorest reading abilities had the lowest blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

This study is particularly significant because another study by the same group showing that DHA supplementation improved reading skills in underperforming children.

Could Omega-3s Improve Reading Skills?

This study (Richardson et al., PLoS ONE 7: e43909.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0043909) looked at 362 normal 7-9 year old children enrolled in mainstream primary schools in Oxfordshire, England.

These children were all reading at significantly below the average for their grade levels. The study excluded children with specific medical difficulties that might affect their ability to read, children who were already taking medications expected to affect behavior or learning, children for whom English was not their first language, and children who were already eating fish more than twice a week or taking omega-3 supplements.

The children were given either supplements containing 600 mg of DHA per day or a placebo containing corn and soybean oil. At the end of 16 weeks the children were rescored on a standardized reading test.

Reading-ScoresThe results were quite interesting. When the scientists looked at children reading in the lower third of their class, the affect of DHA on their ability to read was non-significant. However, when they looked at the children who were performing in the bottom 20% of their class with respect to reading, DHA supplementation resulted in a 20% improvement in their reading score. And when they looked at children in the bottom 10% of their class with respect to reading, DHA supplementation resulted in a 50% increase in reading scores. These changes were highly significant.

To put this in perspective, the children performing in the bottom 20% of their class improved their reading efficiency by around 0.8 months with respect to their normal reading age, and the children in the bottom 10% of their class improved their reading efficiency by around 1.9 months with respect to their normal reading age.

Strengths and Weaknesses of The Studies

 

On The Minus Side:

  • First and foremost we must remember that nutrition is only one of many factors that can affect reading performance in children. You shouldn’t think of DHA as a magic bullet that will cure your child’s reading problems by itself.
  • This is a single pair of studies that need to be replicated.
  • This study does not establish the optimal dose of DHA needed to improve reading in underperforming children. Until dose response studies have been done we don’t know whether 600 mg is needed or whether simply making sure that the children reach the recommended 200 mg per day of DHA would be sufficient.

On The Plus Side:

  • Both of these were very well controlled studies, and they complemented each other perfectly.  One study showed that students with the poorest reading ability had the lowest blood levels of DHA. The other study showed that children with the poorest reading ability experienced the greatest improvement with DHA supplementation.
  • These studies were not done with third world children. They were studies with normal, healthy children in a prosperous European country.
  • These studies are fully consistent with previous studies looking at the effects of DHA on cognition in children.

The Bottom Line

What does this study mean for parents whose children may be struggling with their reading in school?

  • The lead author concluded: “We have shown that in the mainstream, general population, something as simple as DHA can benefit reading abilities in underperforming children.”
  • It’s perhaps not that ironclad yet. But if your kid or grandkid is reading below their grade level, DHA supplementation is both safe and inexpensive. It’s worth giving it a try.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Health Tips From The Professor