A recent study showed that omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA, are associated with increased attention scores in adolescents.
Researchers in Barcelona studied 332 adolescents to determine whether increasing DHA and ALA intake was associated with improved attention measures.
Participants completed tests that measured attention, selective attention, sustained attention, resistance to distraction, and impulsivity. They also answered questions about their dietary habits and had their DHA and ALA levels measured by blood testing.
They found that higher DHA levels are associated with greater attention across categories: selective attention, sustained attention, and inhibitory attention (keeping attention in the face of distractions). ALA did not have much affect on attention, but seemed to be associated with lower impulsivity—something that people with attention disorders may struggle with.
You can read the study here.
More research is needed, but the results are promising and worth further investigation in populations with diagnosed attention disorders. As 13%, or 3.3 million adolescents aged 12-17 have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in the U.S., targeted supplementation could lead to modest improvements in everyday tasks and learning for young people struggling with ADHD.
It’s important to note that the participants did not have diagnosed attention disorders, but may benefit from further study in targeted populations with attention disorders.
Omega-3s can be found in fatty fish such as salmon and tuna, as well as in flaxseed and walnuts. Incorporating these foods into a balanced diet could over time have positive effects on cognitive function and behavior for adolescents.
It is important to note that while omega-3s have shown associations with improved attention in a research setting, it's not a cure for ADHD.
How to get omega-3 fatty acids
A well-rounded, varied diet is the best way to ensure that you’re getting the nutrients you need. If you’d like to focus on your omega-3 intake, you can incorporate foods known to have DHA and ALA and see if you notice cognitive improvements over time. Foods that contain omega-3s include:
- fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, and sardines
- chia seeds
- eggs fortified with omega-3s
In addition to dietary sources, omega-3 supplements are also available. It's easy to overdo your dose with a supplement, so it's important to pay attention to package directions when taking one. If you're on any medications (particularly blood thinners), have a bleeding disorder, or if there's anything in your medical history that's a cause for concern, consult with a healthcare provider before starting an omega-3 supplement, as they can thin your blood.
What’s the best kind of omega-3 supplement? There are hundreds of brands out there. Look for a sustainably-sourced supplement made with low-mercury fish. There are also brands that may include lemon or orange oil to mask the fishy flavor.
Incorporating omega-3 foods into your diet can offer potential benefits for cognitive function and behavior, but it's important to remember that omega-3s are not a cure for attention disorders. It is best to consume them as part of a balanced, varied, whole-foods diet.
- Pinar-Martí, A., Fernández-Barrés, S., Gignac, F. et al. Red blood cell omega-3 fatty acids and attention scores in healthy adolescents. Eur Child Adolesc Psychiatry (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00787-022-02064-w
- Data and statistics about ADHD. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/adhd/data.html. Published August 9, 2022. Accessed October 19, 2022.