Does eating fish make children smarter?

Posted: Jan 15 2018

You’ve probably heard the saying “fish is brain food.” It turns out to be true, according to the findings of a new study from the University of Pennsylvania, published December 21, 2017 in Scientific Reports. According to the study, children who eat fish once a week or more are found to score higher on IQ tests than their peers who eat it less often, or not at all. Fish-eating youngsters also sleep better.

Numerous past studies have shown that omega-3s—essential fatty acids that occur naturally in many types of fish, including salmon, tuna, and sardines—are associated with enhanced intelligence and better sleep among children and young people.

University of Pennsylvania researchers conducted the new study by surveying more than 500 Chinese children, ages 9 – 11 on how often they had eaten fish in the previous month. The children were presented with answer options ranging from "never" to "at least once per week." At age 12, the children who participated in the study’s survey completed an IQ test that measured their verbal and nonverbal skills.

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Children who stated that they ate fish at least once per week scored 4.8 points higher on their IQ tests than those who said they "seldom" or "never" ate fish. Children who said they “sometimes" eat fish scored 3.3 points higher on IQ exams. Due to the children’s young ages, researchers did not ask them what types of fish they ate. 

Parents were also asked questions about their children’s sleep quality. The parents of children who ate fish once or more per week reported fewer sleep disturbances, indicating better overall sleep quality.

Researchers who conducted and published the study’s findings recommend adding fish to a child's diet incrementally.

"Children should be introduced to it early on," said Jennifer Pinto-Martin, a co-author of the study and executive director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Public Health Initiatives.

Children can begin eating fish at around age two as long as the fish contains no bones and has been finely chopped.

"Introducing the taste early makes it more palatable," Pinto-Martin said. "If they're not used to it, they may shy away from it (later)." 

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Though the study was conducted with Chinese children, American children are just as likely to benefit from a diet that includes fish once or more weekly, according to lead researcher Jianghong Liu, an associate professor of nursing at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing in Philadelphia.

"We need to modify the American diet for the betterment of our children," she said.

"If parents want their children to be healthy and higher-performing, they should put fish on the table once a week," Liu said. "That is not too much to ask."

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