Teenagers are notorious for making poor food choices – favouring pizzas, fizzy drinks and crisps over proper balanced meals.
So it might sound as if the makers of Well teen, a supplement made for teenagers ‘tailored’ for their developing brains, are on to something.Research seems to back this up – a recent study by the University of Oxford showed teenagers given the supplement for three months were better behaved than those given a placebo, according to teachers’ ratings of behavior. The researchers say it is the first study to show clearly that oral supplements can improve behavior in healthy youngsters.
One key ingredient is omega 3 – the fatty acids vital for building connections between brain cells, which influences our behavior. Our bodies can’t make them, so we need to get them from our diet.
Oily fish is the richest source of omega 3s. There is some evidence that a lack of omega 3 may be linked to an increased risk of behavioral problems.A study in the International Review of Psychiatry in 2006 suggested deficiencies in omega 3 may lower levels of brain chemicals at critical periods of neuro-development, and lead to problems such as aggression. And a study in the journal Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics in 2013 reviewed this evidence and concluded that giving a multi-nutrient supplement could help treat anti-social behavior and other psychiatric symptoms.
But could taking multi-nutrient pill with omega 3 really improve teenagers’ behaviour? The recent Oxford study involved 196 teenagers – when their diets were analysed, about 30 per cent was junk food snacks, and they had just 1.2 portions of fruit and veg a day.
Oily fish intake was negligible. The teenagers were given either Wellteen or a placebo daily for 12 weeks.
The study results, which were published in the British Journal of Nutrition, suggested that only students on the supplements had improved behaviour. Ideally children would get omega 3s from fish, but because so many don’t like it, supplements may be the best alternative, says Jonathan Tammam, a registered dietitian and a research scientist at the University of Oxford, who led the study.
Dr Tammam plans to repeat the study in more schools and argues that lobbying the government or making it aware of these findings is a useful first step to influencing public health policy and understanding how ‘nutrition can impact the cognitive health and behaviour of children’.
Yet some experts say the results of the Wellteen study are ‘overstated’, particularly as the study was small.’The change in disruptive behaviour was weak, going from a rating of 53.3 before they took the supplement to 52.4,’ says Professor John Beattie, head of the micronutrients group at the Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health, University of Aberdeen, who studies the impact of nutrient deficiencies on health.Other experts say the study was too short to be meaningful.
‘You would need to test the effect of the supplement over a much longer period of time to know if there was a clear influence on behaviour,’ says Dr Baukje De Roos, deputy director of the Rowett Institute.
- Omega 3 fatty acids take about 18 weeks to integrate fully into cells and long-term effects would only be expected after that, she says. Taking supplements ‘may be of benefit for some teenagers and children who don’t have access to an adequate diet, but there is no evidence of a benefit in healthy people,’ adds Anna Daniels, spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association.
- There are also concerns that supplements containing a mix of nutrients could cause problems because certain minerals can interact with each other when taken together, says Professor Beattie.
- For example, zinc and copper (in the Wellteen supplement and many other multivitamins) are ‘mutually antagonistic’, meaning if they are taken together there is reduced absorption of both, he adds. ‘Focusing on dietary changes should be a priority.’ Anna Daniels suggests having about two portions of oily fish per week. ‘Making fish pie, fishcakes and pasta bake made with oily fish such as salmon, mackerel or sardines may be a way to appeal to teenagers,’ she says.
Omega 3 from algae versus fish
- And some manufacturers are adding omega 3 to certain breads, milk and spreads. Professor Beattie says these are just as beneficial as fresh fish, so worth a try.But as Benjamin Jacobs, a consultant paediatrician at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, explains, addressing any shortfalls in omega 3 is not as urgent as other nutrient deficiencies in teenagers, such as vitamin D, which is needed for healthy bones.
- The government will release a report soon looking into the value of vitamin D supplements or fortifying foods, finalising five years’ worth of investigation, and possibly recommending that certain foods should be fortified with vitamin D, particularly for children and teenagers, he says.