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Blog: Focus on oily fish

Public Health England, in response to an extensive review of evidence, has recently updated its vitamin D advice to recommend that everyone needs an average daily intake of 10 micrograms, yet children currently only consume around 2 micrograms of vitamin D a day from food. Encouraging intake of oily fish in the diet is ever more important as it is one of the few and richest natural food sources of vitamin D.

However recent dietary survey data shows that on average children are eating much less than the recommended one portion of oily fish a week, with only around one-in-10 children eating oily fish over the 4-day survey recording period.

The health benefits of oily fish

Oily fish include salmon, trout, mackerel, herring, fresh tuna (not canned) and sardines, and contain many other nutrients that children need for normal growth and development. They also provide beneficial fatty acids called long chain Omega 3s that play an essential role in the early development of the brain and nerves.

How can health professionals help to encourage intakes of oily fish?

Some children may be reluctant to eat oily fish. Like babies, children need time to get used to new tastes and textures so it may take several attempts before they will accept eating oily fish. 

Here are some tips that health professionals could pass on that may facilitate carers to increase oily fish consumption in children:

·       Offer oily fish at least once a week – start with small amounts as part of a meal and gradually increase amounts offered.

·       Encourage involving children in buying and preparing fish, for example by taking them to the local fish counter, talking about where the fish comes from and making simple dishes like fish cakes or fishy sandwich fillers and dips.

·       Buy canned fish such as salmon and sardines which tend to be cheaper, and can be used easily in a meal – like in a quick pasta sauce.

Limits for oily fish

Oily fish can contain low levels of pollutants that can build up in the body, so there are maximum recommendations for the number of portions that children eat:

-        Boys can have up to four portions of oily fish a week.

-        Girls should have no more than two portions a week because the pollutants can build up in the body and may harm an unborn baby during a future pregnancy.

Children should not be given swordfish, shark or marlin as the levels of mercury in these fish can affect the child’ nervous system.

But remember the health benefits outweigh the risks, so consumption of oily fish should be encouraged, as long as the child doesn't eat more than the recommended amounts.

Important to buy sustainably…..

To ensure that there is enough fish to eat now and in the future, we should try to eat a wide variety of fish and buy fish from sustainable sources (Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified).

Government advice on vitamin D, which is helpful for health care professionals includes:

·       Breastfed babies from birth to one year of age should be given a daily supplement containing 8.5 to 10micrograms of vitamin D, to make sure they get enough. 

·       Babies fed infant formula should not be given a vitamin D supplement until they are receiving less than 500ml of infant formula a day (formula is fortified with vitamin D).

·       Children aged one to four years old should be given a daily supplement containing 10 micrograms of vitamin D.

·       Taking a supplement may be considered for children over five years of age in winter months when they will not obtain sufficient vitamin D from sunlight.

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