The news about which foods are healthy and nutritious for us is constantly hitting the headlines. With concerns around escalating childhood obesity, tooth decay and chronic disease in children, understanding more about foods that have outstanding health benefits is beneficial. Eating fish regularly has been long regarded as important for our development, health and well-being by a whole host of experts.
The importance of fish in our diet has a long history and has been widely researched. Fish is highly nutrient dense and an excellent source of high quality protein, but the omega-3 fatty acid content draws most attention. Omega-3 fatty acids are a kind of fat which is essential for optimal health. The right types of fats are important for the body and with the human brain being 60% fat (with one-third coming from essential fats) it’s important we aren’t deprived of these nutrients. This is especially true for growing children.
Our modern diet can often be low or deficit in omega-3 fatty acids and higher in omega-6 which is found in vegetable oils, meat, cereals and wheat. The omega-3 fats make hormone-like substances, which can support brain function, learning ability, co-ordination and mood. They can also help blood cholesterol levels, improve immunity, support metabolism, maintain water balance and reduce inflammatory pathways. Oily fish provides a direct source to the body that does not require any conversion so can be readily utilised by the body.
Not all fish can be considered equal in their nutrient content and potential benefits. Those fish with the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids include: herring, mackerel, sardines, pilchards and salmon. Medium levels include: tuna (Bluefin), bass, whiting and lower levels can be found in cod, haddock, halibut and trout. Aiming for 2-3 portions a week is recommended in the UK.
Fresh, wild fish contains greater nutrient levels versus tinned or intensively farmed fish and UK advice recommends we limit the amount of tuna we eat due to potential exposure to mercury. Take a look at the Food Standards Agency for more detailed advice.
There are a number of signs and symptoms that can be linked to omega-3 fatty acid deficiency, which include:
- Poor coordination
- Hyperactivity and inattention
- Slower cognition and learning difficulties
- Excessive thirst
- Excessive urination
- Dry or rough skin, dry hair or dandruff
- Eczema and asthma – signs of allergy and inflammation
- Sleep problems – getting to sleep and waking
- Visual problems, including poor night vision and sensitivity to bright light
Many of the above signs are found commonly in dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD but anyone can present with them.
Often knowing what foods are better for children can be frustrating, especially if they are particularly picky eaters. Advice around this would be to continue to give them fish as it can take many tries before a child will eat something. Talk about its benefits and, if they are old enough, engage them in the kitchen to cook and prepare simple dishes. It can also be easier to prepare fish that has a mild flavour and delicate texture such as cod, haddock and hake before increasing flavour and texture with sardines, trout, mackerel and salmon. Consider the flavours individual children enjoy and use this when cooking, such as tomato based flavours or creamy dishes. Even giving it a name that appeals can be helpful such as ‘pink fish’. If, as a parent, you still struggle to establish regular fish consumption then good quality supplements could be considered.
Early years settings are well placed to promote fish consumption by talking about the importance of foods for development, reading stories about fish and singing songs. If your setting also feeds children, then ensuring unbuttered/unbreaded fish is regularly part of the menu is valuable and sharing your recipes with parents can also be helpful for those children who tend to refuse at home. Encouraging parents to model good practice at home will also be beneficial for all and support long-term health.
About the author
The Food Teacher, Katharine Tate, has worked as a teacher and education consultant internationally in primary and secondary schools for over 20 years. Qualified as a registered nutritional therapist, Katharine, combines her unique education and nutrition expertise to offer schools, organisations and families advice, education programmes, practical workshops, and individual/family clinical consultations. Katharine also presents The Food Teacher show on UK Health Radio where she discusses the importance of food for health and wellbeing.
She has published 2 books: ‘Heat-Free & Healthy’ and the award-winning ‘No Kitchen Cookery for Primary Schools’. Look out for The Food Teacher at Food Festivals and events throughout the country during 2016.