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An Oxfordshire-based study shows that increasing levels of Omega-3 in children’s diets can improve concentration and reading ability.

Feeding the mind

Image credit: Shutterstock

Longstanding research has shown that increasing levels of Omega-3, found in oily fish like mackerel, in children with ADHD improves their behaviour and learning ability. But Professor Paul Montgomery at the Centre for Evidence Based Intervention wondered if this association holds for children without specific conditions? In other words, if children with lower than average reading ability increase their Omega-3 intake, would their reading ability improve compared with children taking a placebo?

For many years specialists have been aware that levels of Omega-3 fatty acids (commonly found in oily fish) are falling in Western diets. We eat differently compared to our forebears, with fish and nuts making up a much lower percentage of our diet than 2,000 years ago. This might be where it ended, but for the fact that Omega-3s are essential for brain development and physical health. The link between low levels of Omega-3 fatty acids in children with behavioural and learning conditions like ADHD had been established: could this research widen the scope?

Montgomery and his team conducted a randomised controlled trial in schools throughout Oxfordshire. The research focused on children between seven and nine years old, because this is the age at which key reading progress tends to happen. Consent for every stage of the trial was obtained in advance from both parents and children. All the children in the trial were healthy, spoke English as a first language, and had reading ability test scores in the bottom third of national results. One group of children were given Omega-3 DHA supplements every day for sixteen weeks, the other group received a placebo. At the beginning and at the end of the trial researchers measured reading ability, working memory and behaviour, and they found that those children taking supplements had significantly improved reading and parent-rated behaviour compared with placebo.

DHA supplementation appears to offer a safe and effective way to improve reading and behaviour in healthy but under-performing children from mainstream schools
- Prof Paul Montgomery

It’s an important discovery, but Montgomery and his team wanted to understand possible mechanisms for change. One possible factor is sleep. We know that sleep problems in children are associated with poor health, behavioural and cognitive problems, as are deficiencies of fatty acids. Although theory supports a role for fatty acids in sleep regulation, it wasn’t until Montgomery and his team embarked on their project that robust evidence was produced to support the theory. A subset of the children who took part in the randomised controlled trial wore sleep monitors. These small devices recorded the children’s activity, and are particularly good at recognising when the wearer is asleep. Results from this aspect of the trial suggest that increased levels of fatty acids in a child’s diet could improve sleep, with children who received Omega-3 DHA supplements sleeping nearly an hour extra each night.  More research is needed to develop this side of the study, but this work has uncovered new evidence that could support educators and parents in helping children with lower reading ability.

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Department of Social Policy and Intervention

Centre for Evidence Based Intervention

Prof Paul Montgomery