If the new book The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet, featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Time has made you change your child's plate and offer her fatty foods without abandon, I urge to you to think again. Although I recommend an all-foods-can-fit approach to eating and feeding my children—an approach that some registered dietitian nutrition colleagues support and others loathe—it makes little sense to disregard current science-based advice to limit saturated fatty acids.
A strong body of evidence suggests that higher intake of saturated fatty acids is linked with higher levels of both total and bad (LDL) cholesterol—risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Also, replacing some saturated fatty acids in the diet with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids (unsaturated fats) is also linked with low blood cholesterol levels and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Because of these links, current Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend consuming less than 10 percent of total calories as saturated fatty acids by replacing them with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids; keeping trans fatty acid consumption as low as possible; and reducing intake of solid fats (like butter and lard).
According to the American Heart Association, lowering saturated fatty acid intake even more—to less than 7 percent of total daily calories—can confer even more benefits when it comes to heart health.
Even though foods that naturally contain saturated fatty acids like meat and dairy foods (milk, cheese and yogurt) contribute key nutrients, it's wise to teach children to choose such foods and others high in saturated fatty acids (including grain-based desserts like cookies and cupcakes, and dairy-based desserts like ice cream) in lower fat forms while eating plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. This can help minimize saturated fatty acid intake while maximizing overall nutrient intake. More importantly, it can also help children keep their total calorie intake at a level that meets (but doesn't exceed) their needs. Because many foods that are rich in saturated fatty acids also tend to be high in calories (not to mention taste so good), they're also relatively easy to over consume.
Excess intake of saturated fatty acids (and fat in general) that leads to an over consumption of total calories also can contribute to excess body fat levels. Because each gram of fat has more than double the calories found in a gram of either carbohydrate or protein, calories from foods high in fat content can add up really fast and cause children to take in more calories than they need. Also, even though excess calories from any nutrient—protein, fat or carbohydrate—can increase body fat levels, excess fat calories are more efficiently stored as body fat than excess carbohydrate or protein calories. So while it's important to make sure children get enough calories from nutrient-rich foods to meet their needs, it's also important to help them avoid excess calories from fat (especially saturated and trans fatty acids) to prevent unhealthy weight gain and obesity.
Although many variables including genes, excess total calorie intake, decreased physical activity, increased sedentary behavior and not enough sleep contribute to the development of obesity in children, helping children establish moderate and mindful eating habits can reduce the risk. Becoming obese not only burdens children both physically and emotionally, but it also puts them at increased risk for diet related diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. It also can increase the risk of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Highlighted recently in the New York Times, the prevalence of suspected NAFLD in adolescents has more than doubled over the last three decades and currently affects an estimated 1 in 10 children. Over time, NAFDL can lead to cirrhosis, liver failure, liver cancer and cardiovascular disease. A study published in the Journal of Pediatrics suggests that increased intake of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids (especially omega-3 fatty acids) and reduced intake of added sugars (especially from soft drinks) may reduce the risk of or treat NAFLD.
When it comes to dietary fats, helping children choose leaner cuts of meat (like sirloin or flank steak and skinless poultry), low- or non-fat dairy products, eating more fish (especially those rich in omega-3 fatty acids), nuts and seeds, and limiting fried foods and other foods made with solid fats can help them better balance their fat intake (not to mention eat better). Still, focusing on manipulating a single nutrient in the diet—whether that nutrient is fat (or a particular fat, like saturated fat), sugar or something else—misses the boat, especially because most foods contain a mix of nutrients. And ODing on any single nutrient or food is never a good idea, especially because it then leaves less room for other nutrients and foods in the diet. So the next time you hear a story or read a headline that tells you it's OK to eat more of this or that even though you've heard you shouldn't, or to eliminate this or that (even though a little probably won't kill you), be aware that these statements are likely too good to be true or. At best, they're an oversimplification of the science of food and nutrition. I say it's safer to let prudence rather than headlines be your guide when making food choices for yourself and your family.
The bottom line when it comes to dietary fat and children is to offer them a wide variety of nutrient-rich foods, to teach them how to balance their food choices and to learn what proper portions of all kinds of foods to meet individual needs for growth and development. And until we know more, I prefer a total diet rather than a single nutrient approach to eating and feeding, and recommend using current science-based Dietary Guidelines for Americans to guide your food choices. Although few children and adults fully follow the guidelines (they are admittedly idealistic and challenging to follow), simply moving in the direction of meeting the recommendations can help children eat better while reducing the risk of obesity and diet-related diseases. Staying active, getting adequate sleep and managing stress can also help.
(For more on my thoughts about dietary fat and kids, check out this recent Scoop on Food post.)
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Image of fresh meat and dairy products via shutterstock.