Omega 3's – Nutrients for the Brain

Grandma was right. Fish really is “brain food” due to its omega-3 content. It is also rich in high quality protein, selenium and vitamin B12 and provides iron, zinc and iodine.

But it is the omega-3s which place fish apart from other meats.

Oily fish such as mackerel, herrings, sardines and salmon contain over 500mg long chain omega-3 EPA and DHA in a serve with some as high as 3000mg.

Less oily fish and other seafood still contribute significant amounts so no need to give up the oysters and prawns.

Some of the foods enriched with long chain omega-3s, such as certain varieties of milk, bread, eggs and yoghurt, help boost intakes too especially when they are consumed everyday.

Lean red meat, liver and kidneys contain small amounts of EPA and DHA too.

Building block of the brain

Long chain omega-3 DHA is a building block for neutral tissue, especially the brain's gray matter and the retina.  Animal studies have shown that reduced DHA levels can lead to dramatic changes in the brain's structure and function including the basic senses of taste, sight and hearing as well as memory and learning.

These effects are due to changes in the DHA levels in cell membranes which influence their function. the roles of long chain omega-3s in gene expression and as the foundation for the production of other bioactive substances are also important.

The developing infant

During pregnancy, DHA is passed from mother to infant. Breast milk contains DHA but the levels vary depending on the mother's diet. There is rapid growth of the infant's brain in the first 2 years of life, so a ready supply of DHA is important.

Children need Omega-3s

But what about older children? The Omega-3 Centre recently released a report on the benefits of omega-3s for children.

A panel of experts reviewed the current scientific evidence and concluded that there is good evidence to support the role of the long chain omega-3s, EPA and DHA, in brain growth and development, behaviour, attention and learning with some evidence for benefit in relation to asthma and mood.There is some interesting evidence about omega-3s' role in bone growth as well.

As Australian study has recently confirmed earlier UK research that many children with symptoms of hyperactivity, impulsivity and inattention can benefit from omega-3 supplementation.

All children need omega-3s in their diet for good health. Yet we know that they eat very little fish. One study in NSW indicated that most children eat fish less than once a week. It's time to encourage our children to enjoy more fish and seafood.

The ageing brain and omega-3s

The research findings are mounting up to indicate that older brains need omega-3s too. Long chain omega-3s are associated with a reduced risk of age-related cognitive decline and Alzheimer's disease.

Depression and dementia are in the top ten leading causes of disease burden in Australia. We know omega-3s are good for our heart – the evidence is getting stronger everyday for their benefits to our brain.

Add omega-3s to your menu

Here are a few economical ideas for boosting your intake of long chain omega-3s by converting your usual recipe:

  • Fish Pie: Replace the mince in Shepard's pie with gemfish fillets cooked in white sauce with onions, carrots and peas. Top with mashed potato with grated Parmesan for added flavour.
  • Seafood Pasta: Whip up a simple pasta dish with marinara mix cooked in a tomato-based pasta sauce, parsley, black pepper and crushed garlic served over your favourite pasta with a green salad and crusty bread.
  • Fish Cakes: Make fish cakes with mashed canned tuna – check the label for a high EPA and DHA brand – mashed potato, finely chopped onion and a little flour. For a more adult flavour add Thai seasonings.

Total long chain Omega-3 content of some common foods

Seafoods  Serve size (g)
EPA & DHA mg
per serve
Other foods  EPA & DHA mg
per serve
 King salmon  150 > 3000  Enriched foods such as bread, yoghurt, eggs, milk
Varies but at least


 Sardines canned  75  >1000  Eggs regular 80 
 Greenshell/lipped mussels  100  950  Turkey  30
 Blue mackerel  150  700  Beef and lamb  30
 Hoki (Blue Grenadier)  150  615  Milk regular  0
 Gemfish  150  600  Vegetable oils & spreads  0
 Blue eye cod  150  465  Regular bread  0
 Snapper  150  330  Cereals, rice, oats, etc  0
 Sydney rock oysters  100  300  Pasta  0
 Tuna canned  100  230  Legumes  0
 Barramundi saltwater  150  150  Fruit  0
 Giant tiger prawns  100  100  Vegetables  0