Dietary fat is a critical part of a child’s health—as long as it’s the right kind of fat and in the right proportion. In the body, fats perform a number of important functions, including:
- Providing essential fatty acids (those not made by the body), which are used to help build cells walls and in brain development.
- Carrying fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K).
- Provide a concentrated source of calories (energy). Gram for gram, fat contains more than double the calories of carbohydrates and protein.
Fat is especially important during the first two years of life. Believe it or not, fat calories constitute about half of your baby’s nutritional needs because the brain is developing rapidly and relies on fat as a fuel and growth source. Breast milk naturally provides the amount of fat your baby needs, and because infant formula is formulated to mimic breast milk, it is also adequate in fat content.
Once your baby is weaned from these, you may be wondering how much fat is enough, and which are the right types to include in your child’s diet. In the toddler years (2-3 years), fat is still an important nutrient, constituting about 35-40 percent of total calories. Babies and toddlers need about 3-4 teaspoons of fat each day. This doesn’t mean you have to add fat, as many foods such as whole milk, cheese, and meats already contain fat that count toward total daily amounts.
As your child grows, the type of fat becomes more critical. There are four types of fat:
- Polyunsaturated fat—These are plant-based sources of fat and include sunflower seeds; most nuts; corn, safflower, sunflower, soybean and sesame oils.
- Mono-unsaturated fat—Also plant-based or from fish sources, including fatty fish such as salmon; olive and canola oils; avocado; and olives.
- Saturated fat—Sourced from animals including meat with obvious fat; poultry (from skin); whole-milk dairy products; butter; lard; palm and coconut oils.
- Trans-saturated fat—These are man-made fats from plant oils processed to make a solid fat. You can find them in baked goods, crackers, chips, and other shelf-stable pre-packaged items; some margarines; shortening; fried and fast foods cooked in solid fats.
For all children, polyunsaturated and mono-unsaturated fats are the preferred types to include in the daily diet. These fats fight against future chronic disease and are associated with a healthy body weight, while saturated and trans-saturated fats promote chronic conditions and weight gain.
Of course, it’s all about the balance! Most of the time you should shift your child’s fat sources to the healthier types.
- Choose plant-based fats, like polyunsaturated and mono-unsaturated fats, for your child most of the time.
- Too little fat in your child’s diet can result in poor weight gain, growth and development.
- You can have an impact on lifetime health just by the types of fat you choose to have in your home.