Before you enroll your child in an expensive tutoring program because they struggle with reading, you might want to try a dietary supplement. Yes, you read that right — a dietary supplement.
Past research has suggested that children who have problems with reading and attention benefit from taking omega-3 and omega-6 supplements. Swedish researchers decided to see if these supplements would improve the reading abilities of children without those difficulties.
Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats found primarily in fish and plant foods. The American diet is notably low in omega-3s.
Over 150 Swedish third graders were involved in the study. Children’s reading speed and vocabulary were measured using a computer-based test, as was their ability to read nonsense words, a sequence of letters sounded out phonetically that appears to be a word but has no meaning.
Children receiving the fatty acid supplement showed a greater improvement in their reading speed and vocabulary, compared to those who were taking the placebo.
The children were then randomly assigned to groups that were given either capsules containing both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids or a placebo containing palm oil. Neither the children nor their parents knew the contents of the capsules. Three months later, all of the children in the study began receiving the combined omega-3 and omega-6 supplement for the rest of the six-month study.
In those first three months the group receiving the fatty acid supplement showed a greater improvement in their reading speed and vocabulary compared to the children who were taking the placebo, especially in their ability to read a nonsense word out loud and say it correctly.
None of the children in the study had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), though some did experience mild attention problems. It was those children who showed greater achievement in some of the tests, including the ability to read faster.
Omega-3s are plentiful in fish, walnuts, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds and dark leafy green vegetables, while omega-6 fatty acids are found primarily in vegetable oils.
This is the first double-blind, placebo-controlled study that shows omega-3/6 improves reading skills in children, though until the results are repeated in other studies, they should be considered preliminary.
In the meantime, parents can boost their children’s intake of these essential fatty acids by serving fish more often, encouraging children to try dark leafy greens, and offering walnuts and pumpkin seeds for snacks.
For those thinking of using a supplement, it's important to note that studies found that omega-3/6 supplements are safe and well-tolerated in children, but you should discuss supplementation with your child’s pediatrician before starting such therapy on your own.