Why Kids Need Healthy Fats

A young boy holds up his arms to show his muscles as he holds a glass of milk.
JenniferOkamoto/FogStock/Thinkstock

Eight months after her second child was born, Melody, 38, still had her “baby fat.” In an effort to slim down and fit back into her regular clothes, she changed her shopping and eating habits. She cut out excess fat and did things like use more soy protein and less cheese. Her husband, Derek, was all for this change and wanted to pitch their 2-percent milk for skim milk.

While these dietary changes worked for Melody and Derek, they could have been detrimental to their young children, Jason and Tori. Jason, an infant, was nursing, and his nutritional needs, at least in part, still had to come from Melody’s diet. And Tori, a preschooler, still needed healthy fats to grow and develop. 

Babies need higher-fat diets

Remember the old phrase, “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander”? When it comes to diet, a more correct adage is: “What’s good for the goose and gander isn’t necessarily good for the gosling.”

The nutritional needs of adults differ vastly from those of infants. Dr. Tyler Sexton, a pediatrician and a member of the Physicians Resource Council of Focus on the Family, explains, “Babies and children have small stomachs. In order for them to meet their nutritional requirements, they need calorie-rich foods in a smaller volume, and that is why high-fat foods at a young age are important.”

Infants need the fat in their mother’s breast milk or formula, too. Dr. Sexton says, “Babies grow rapidly; they triple their birth weight, and they can grow 10 inches in their first year.” A nursing mother like Melody should strive to keep a healthy amount of beneficial fatty acids — think fish, walnuts or olive oil — in her diet because she’s still eating for two.

Fats are brain food for toddlers

Chelsie is 14 weeks pregnant with her second child. Because she has migraines due to the pregnancy, she’s switched to organic foods and a vegan-based diet in an attempt to curb the headaches. The change has given her some relief, but is her new diet healthy for her toddler? 

Her son, Larry, an active 18-month old, enjoys some of her new food choices, especially organic, calcium-fortified almond milk. But Chelsie is planning to check with her pediatrician before she lets Larry give up whole milk, since that’s what she was raised on. She’s worried that the switch to almond milk won’t give him enough essential nutrients.

Chelsie’s concerns are valid. Dr. Sexton explains that the higher fat diet is needed for a toddler’s brain development that begins at 12 months. That’s when the nerve coverings called the myelin sheath are forming, and their makeup is 60 percent fat. He recommends that children under 2 years old should receive roughly half of their calories from fat. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends serving kids between the ages of 12 to 24 months 16 to 24 ounces of whole milk per day. If a child is overweight or has hereditary health risks such as high cholesterol or heart disease, parents should discuss their concerns with a pediatrician.

The skinny on preschoolers and fats

With preschoolers who are picky about food, parents may feel that their child isn’t getting a balanced diet. That was the case with Tori, whose mother, Melody, was cutting back on fats. Tori preferred sweet juices and fruits to other foods and consistently chose fruit to anything else. 

As Melody read up on her own nutritional needs, she realized Tori’s overall health was at risk because the youngster was consuming too much fructose. Melody decided to allow Tori to drink only milk or water, and she offered Tori cheese and crackers or nuts instead of fruit slices or applesauce. These changes introduced more fat into Tori’s diet. 

Dr. Sexton says it’s OK to have a day or two where kids’ nutritional intake fluctuates, but their food choices should balance out over a week. Preschoolers like Tori need about 30 percent of their calories from fat. Parents need to check ingredient labels to make sure their kids are getting a balanced diet, including enough fat to keep their kids energized and healthy. They can start easing up on providing as many healthy fats for their kids when their children are around the age of 4.

There’s one additional step to take while reading those packages about fat content. Your child can have a fat-filled diet, but still not be eating what the doctor ordered. Nutritionists agree that avoiding “trans fats” and “hydrogenated oils” are key to healthy living for kids and adults alike.

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