Dietary Fat and Kids

A recent article published in Annals of Internal Medicine garnered considerable coverage by The New York Times, Reuters Health and scores of media outlets. In a review of more than 70 studies of more that 600,000 adults, researchers failed to find a relationship between saturated and polyunsaturated fat intake and cardiac events. The findings led the researchers to conclude that current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats.

Although some may interpret the results of this study as a license to eat (or feed their families) fat without considering its type or quality in the context of the total diet, some researchers are critical of the findings—and the hype surrounding them. For example, in an article in Science Magazine, Walter Willet, chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, says the authors “have done a huge amount of damage.” Willett also said “…a retraction with similar press promotion should be considered.”

And in an article in the New Haven Register, Dr. David Katz, coauthor of Disease Proof, suggested that readers “Chew Carefully on Headlines Before Swallowing Hyperbole” before buying into the notion that it’s suddenly good to eat more saturated fat. I could not agree more!

When it comes to kids’ diets, fat is not at all a four-letter word—in fact, it’s critical in more ways than one. Fat provides calories and essential fatty acids (they’re ‘essential’ because they need to be obtained by the diet since the body cannot make them). Fat also helps kids absorb vitamins A, D, E and K—fat-soluble vitamins that have vital functions. Fat also promotes satiety, or the feeling of fullness, and it enhances the taste, texture and mouth feel of foods to make them more enjoyable.

According to Institute of Medicine’s Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Ranges (AMDR) designed to promote intake of essential nutrients and reduce chronic disease, 1- to 3-year-olds should aim for 30 to 40% of total daily calories as fat. For children aged 4 to 18, recommended fat intake is 25 to 35% of total daily calories.

Because there’s ample evidence that higher intakes of most dietary saturated fatty acids is linked with higher levels of total blood cholesterol and bad low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol—both risk factors for cardiovascular disease—current Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend those aged 2 and older to consume 20 to 35% of calories as fat, with less than 10% of calories from saturated fat (and the rest from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats). The guidelines also recommend keeping intake of trans fats—also linked with raising LDL cholesterol and cardiovascular disease risk—as low as possible.

According to the American Heart Association, Americans over age 2 should limit total fat to less than 25 to 35% of total calories, keep saturated fat to less than 7% of total daily calories and limit trans fat to less than 1% of total calories with the rest from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.

Although getting enough dietary fat is important, especially for younger children, too much dietary fat not only can raise blood cholesterol levels, but it can easily contribute to excess calorie intake and subsequent unhealthy weight gain. Although a lot of foods, especially those derived from animals (can you say cheeseburger), contain a lot of saturated fat, the greatest contributors of saturated fat in the American diet include regular (full-fat) cheese, pizza, grainy desserts (such as cookies, cakes, pies and donuts) and dairy desserts (such as ice cream, frozen yogurt and milkshakes). Although cheese boasts protein and calcium, most of the top saturated fat contributors are skimpy when it comes to the nutrients they provide. Although including them in pared down portions on occasion won’t ruin an otherwise nutritious diet, overdoing such foods also can crowd out more wholesome foods and beverages that support healthy growth and development in kids.

Although not all saturated fats (for example, some in chocolate) appear to raise blood cholesterol levels in the same way, I believe most sources (including coconut oil, which is rich in saturated fat) should still be limited to recommended intakes. But while I do encourage parents to pay some attention to the types and quantities of fat in kids’ diets, it’s far more important to focus more on their overall dietary pattern. Offering and encouraging kids to consume a diet rich in plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds and beans and peas is essential to provide key nutrients, prevent disease and promote a healthful body weight.

Still, if you want to make sure your kids get enough (but not too much) fat to meet their energy and nutrient needs and enhance the taste of foods, you don’t need to completely avoid saturated fat and foods that contain them or count fat grams and make yourself crazy. Instead, follow a few of these tips to help your kids—and your entire family— consume dietary fat in a more healthful and mindful way:

Let them eat fish. Most kids (and adults) fall short on fish, an excellent source of two potent omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA. A good rule of thumb is to offer fish to your kids—and entire family—two to three times weekly. For better bets, check out The Super Green List that highlights fish that are caught or farmed responsibly, are low in mercury and are good sources of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids.

Go nuts. For kids who aren’t allergic and who are older (ideally age 3 and up), chopped nuts and seeds can easily add flavor and texture to salads, vegetable dishes, whole grain breakfast cereal, cooked oats and low fat or nonfat yogurt. Because nuts are a concentrated source of calories, keep portions small (a few teaspoons or tablespoons, depending on your child’s energy needs).

Cook with (and eat) healthier fats. Instead of preparing foods with butter or lard, use oils that have a higher proportion of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat; these include canola, olive, safflower, soybean, corn and cottonseed oils. You can also use avocado or mayonnaise to flavor foods. Keep portions to a few teaspoons daily (depending on your kids’ energy needs).

Do Dairy Right. Although modest amounts of full fat cheese, milk or yogurt won’t derail a nutritious, calorie-appropriate diet in kids, offer kids low fat or nonfat milk more often. If they like the taste of reduced-fat or low fat cheeses, it’s certainly fine to offer those. But if they prefer the taste of full-fat cheeses, stick to no more than 1-2 ounces daily to provide protein and calcium while keeping total and saturated fat intake in check. Using shredded or grated cheese is also a great way to add flavor to veggies or other foods—and because of it’s greater surface area, you can often use less and save calories (and fat) and while keeping kids satisfied.

Get the fat facts. Teach your kids to read food labels—specifically, Nutrition Facts Panels and ingredients lists to see how much and what types of fat different foods contain. Limit or avoid foods that list ‘partially hydrogenated oil’—aka trans fats—on ingredients lists. Foods that may have trans fats include margarines, cupcakes, cookies, baked goods, salad dressings, breakfast and granola-type bars, waffles, breaded foods like chicken nuggets and fish sticks, French fries and many packaged breads.

Downsize fatty fare. When you and your children want that cheeseburger and fries, ice cream or other fatty meal or treat, order or serve small portions and reduce their frequency. Offering 2 sliders instead of an oversized burger, sharing a burger at a restaurant, ordering 1 scoop of ice cream instead of 2 or serving it at home in a 5-ounce Dixie cup instead of a bowl can help kids eat less and still enjoy.

How do you help your kids eat more healthfully when it comes to dietary fat?

Image of food with unsaturated fats via shutterstock.

Test your toddler nutrition IQ.

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