Volume 05 Issue 01 Jan-Mar 2012
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 In EPA & DHA Research
Quick Look...

Increasing the consumption of omega-3 fats and reducing intake of omega-6 fats may have cognitive benefits in children, especially females. 
Gender differences may initiate in childhood and adolescence when females begin to prepare for maternal demands by storing DHA omega-3 at a faster rate than males, while their own brains and bodies are still growing.
Among the school-aged children, daily intake of DHA omega-3 was estimated to be 74 mg and below, much lower than amounts generally recommended from diet. 

boy and girl students
Gender Differences in Omega-3 Dietary Intake and Cognitive Measures in School-Aged Children

Review of:

Lassek WD and Gaulin, SJC. Sex Differences in the Relationship of Dietary Fatty Acids to Cognitive Measures in American Children. Frontiers in Evolutionary Neuroscience. 2011;3:5, 1-5. Doi: 10.3389/fnevo.2011.00005


A body of published science supports a positive link between the level of omega-3s in the diet of pregnant women, their maternal milk or fortified baby formula, and improved cognition in infants. Positive relationships have also been shown between omega-3s and cognition among older children. Further, emerging science suggests that in the process of evolutionary human development, which could relate to female reproduction, females developed greater requirements for omega-3 fatty acids than males. The objective of this study was to assess the effect of gender on the relationship between dietary intake of fatty acids and cognitive performance of American children.


Study strengths

  • Cognitive and dietary data were collected from more than 4,500 children between the ages of 6 and 16 years of age (2,253 males and 2,309 females). The sample was taken from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), a national health and nutrition survey from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
  • Standardized cognitive tests were used and included math and reading.
  • The nutrient and specific fatty acid content in foods were estimated or calculated from the food database developed by the University of Minnesota’s Nutrition Coordinating Center and the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference.
  • Non-dietary factors, such as race and ethnicity, family size, family income, years of education of the householder parent, and serum lead levels were identified and controlled for.
Potential limitations
  • Dietary intake was based on a single 24-hour recall and while completed by skilled interviewers, this type of assessment is not a highly accurate measure of short-term dietary intake.
  • The sample included 26% non-Hispanic whites, 35% non-Hispanic blacks, 35% Mexican-Americans, and 5% other. This representation must be considered when applying study findings across the US population.
  • Though this study assessed school-aged children, a more pronounced effect of omega-3 intake on cognitive development is expected among infants, toddlers, and children of preschool age.
  • Relationships between individual omega-3 fatty acids (e.g., ALA, EPA, DPA, and DHA) and cognitive performance were not reported. Therefore, the opportunity to expand understanding of the roles of specific fatty acids in human growth and development was missed.


  • In both males and females, total dietary omega-3 fatty acids (ALA, EPA, DPA, and DHA) were positively and significantly associated with test scores.
  • The following specific results were observed in females:
                1.Total omega-6 fatty acids were negatively related to
                    test scores.
                2. A higher ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 was inversely
                    and significantly related to cognitive scores.
  • Cognitive performance in females was more sensitive to both the amount of omega-3 in the diet and the effects of dietary omega-6s than in males. The study authors suggest this could be explained by the greater requirement for omega-3 fatty acids by females due to their evolutionary role in providing omega-3 fatty acids to their offspring.
  • The other 33 nutrients evaluated in this study including iron, folate, total dietary saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fatty acids were not related to cognitive performance.
Implications and Applications
Based on statistical analysis, a daily increase of one gram (1,000 mg) of omega-3 would increase the average test score by 0.38 points in females and by 0.19 points in males. 
The high intake of omega-6 fats relative to omega-3s in the American diet may contribute to the relatively low ranking of American children in international testing[i] compared to the diets of children in countries with lower ratios of omega-6 to omega-3. Therefore, these findings may have substantial public health significance, and may be useful in setting national standards, developing sound public health policy, directing and designing health programs and services, and expanding the health knowledge in regards to omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid intakes.

Suggested Citation

Byelashov OA, Winwood RJ, Rice HB, Vannice GK. Advances in EPA & DHA Research: Gender differences in omega-3 dietary intake and cognitive measures among school-aged children. Quarterly Journal of Significant Omega-3 Research, 05;(01),2012.


[1]Gonzales P, Guzmán JC, et al. (2004). Highlights from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 2003 (NCES 2005–005). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

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