Should I give my child supplements? This is a question every parent must ask. On the one hand we are told that ‘a well balanced diet gives you everything you need’. On the other hand the press is full of studies showing increased IQ and attention with supplements of vitamins, minerals and essential fats. Who do you believe?

Did you know that the conventional definition of eating a ‘well balanced diet’ means achieving the Recommended Daily Allowances (RDAs), yet the RDAs have not been calculated for maximising your child’s mental performance? The vast majority of proper scientific studies on what kind of intake of nutrients enhance your child’s potential simply haven’t been considered in setting RDAs, which were originally designed to prevent against physical deficiencies such as scurvy.

So, what does the science tell you?

Vitamins and Mineral

There have been twelve good trials testing the effects of vitamin and mineral supplements on mental performance. Ten out of twelve have shown an increase in IQ. What is not yet clear is what exactly is the optimum level of vitamins and minerals to supplement, although there is a tendency for the higher amounts to produce more significant effects.

Children’s vitamin and mineral supplements tend to either deliver RDA level of nutrients or ‘optimum’ or ‘high potency’ level of nutrients. Some provide a broader range of all 12 essential vitamins and at least 10 of the most important minerals to supplement. These include zinc, magnesium and chromium, among others. The higher potency and broader range supplements are preferable.

Specifically, you can check for the zinc, vitamin C and magnesium levels. Ideally multis should provide at least 2mg of zinc, 80mg of vitamin C and 20mg of magnesium per tablet, with different numbers of tablets to take depending on your child’s age. Bear in mind that chewable tablets are limited as to how much zinc they contain (makes them taste metallic); how much vitamin C they contain (makes them tart); how much calcium and magnesium they contain (makes them hard). Eating seeds every day provides zinc, calcium and magnesium while fresh fruit and vegetables provides vitamin C.

Essential Fats

There are two kinds of essential fats, called omega-3 and omega-6 fats. Of these omega-3 are the more important for brain function. Numerous studies have shown a clear benefit in children supplementing these on a daily basis. There is no scientific evidence to show that the same results can be achieved by eating oily fish twice a week. We recommend both eating oily fish two to three times a week and supplementing these essential fats.

One specific kind of omega-3 fat, called DHA, is vital for the developing brain, hence especially important in pregnancy and infancy. Another kind, called EPA, has proven effective for attention, hyperactivity, depression and anxiety. Both EPA and DHA are found in fish oils. There is another type of omega-3 fat called alpha linolenic acid (or ALA) which is found in foods of vegetable origin, such as flax and pumpkin seeds. While beneficial, only a very small amount of this gets converted into the more powerful EPA and DHA. Supplementing a direct source of EPA and DHA is preferable.

Omega-6 fats are important too. The more potent form of omega-6 fat is called gamma-linolenic acid (or GLA for short). This is found in borage and evening primrose oil. The brain also needs arachidonic acid (AA), which can be made from GLA. It is found in highest quantities in animal origin food such as fish, meat, eggs and dairy produce. Most experts in this field recommend supplementing a combination of EPA, DHA and GLA.

Fish oils can be contaminated with pollutants such as PCBs and mercury. It is best to choose a brand that guarantees it’s purity and quality. These are often not the cheapest products, but quality is important when choosing an essential fat supplement.