Fish is often credited in folk-lore as being brain food. In recent years scientific research into the omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids present in oily fish suggests that this may not be so far from the truth.
Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) is an Omega 3 fatty acid and is a major constituent of the human brain and retina and has so been linked with brain function and sparked an interest in the possibility of oily fish as 'Brain Food'.
Traditionally DHA is found in oily fish such as mackerel, however small amounts can be made in the body from the essential fatty acid alpha- linolenic acid though this is a relatively inefficient process much of the DHA being lost in the conversion process. So for the moment oily fish consumption is the best way to incorporate DHA into the diet.
Brain development is very rapid during the last trimester of pregnancy during this period the tissue reserves of DHA in the pregnant woman are under increased pressure. Eating more DHA rich foods at this time may be of some benefit. Recent guidelines issued by the Food Standards Agency recommend pregnant women and women of childbearing age to limit oily fish consumption to twice a week because some oily fish contain chemicals such as dioxins and PCBs. The upper limit for men, boys, and women not intending to become pregnant is 4 portions a week.
Scientists are now investigating the possibility that children's diets can influence their behaviour. Fish oils have attracted particular interest because of indications that their consumption may help to control attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Interestingly in adults research suggests that fish oils may play a preventative role in reducing risk of developing dementia and more recent studies have even found a link between DHA levels and reduced incidence of depression.
It is clear that the fatty acids present in oily fish have a potentially beneficial effect on brain function affecting behaviour and concentration in both adults and children. However continued research is required to determine to what extent this influence is due to oily fish in the diet.
A balanced diet should contain some oily fish (currently recommended as one portion a week), but very few people eat enough in their daily diet to get the levels of DHA they need. It is especially difficult to get children to eat something that isn't part of their normal diet.
Functional foods can play a role in increasing consumption:
Omega 3 fatty acid enriched eggs are a novel food product designed to increase DHA in the diet. These so called 'intelligent eggs' are laid by hens fed a small amount of tuna oil enriched with DHA and meet ¾ of the recommended daily intake with one egg containing 0.15g DHA. Eggs are a very versatile food making up a staple part of the British diet and therefore are an ideal way of increasing DHA intake. The food industry is looking at other similar ways to increase fish oil consumption in the diet through fortification of staple foods- keep an eye out for additions in bread.
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