Types of Fats: Knowing which to Choose


What to know about dietary fats in your and your child’s diet

  • Why our bodies need fat

  • Which fats are not as beneficial for us

  • Food sources of high-quality fats

Dietary fat is essential to our health.1 Knowing which types of fat to have more of and which are best to minimize will help you and your child eat a nourishing, well-balanced diet.

Why are fats important for your and your child’s health?

Fats play a number of important roles in the body, from protecting organs, to helping fat-soluble vitamins be absorbed (vitamins A, D, E and K), as well as carrying out chemical reactions related to growth, immune function, reproduction, and metabolism.1,4

For your baby or toddler, fat is an especially important nutrient, particularly for growth and brain development.2,20 Your child is growing fast, which requires a large number of calories in proportion to their body size, and fat provides more than twice the calories per gram than proteins and carbohydrates.2,3

What are the different types of fat?

Because different types of fats affect the body in different ways, it’s often recommended to focus more on the type of fat we eat rather than the amount.21

Which types of fat should we eat, and which should we minimize?

  • The “bad” fats, those linked to poor health and chronic conditions, are partially hydrogenated oils (‘trans’ fats) and saturated fats.

  • The “good” fats, shown to be beneficial for health because they can help improve heart health as well as lessen the effects of inflammation, are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (which include the essential fatty acids).1,4

Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat

Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature (example: olive oil), and often come from plant sources and fatty fish.1

Both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats may help reduce “bad” cholesterol and raise “good” cholesterol.7 Additionally, oils rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats contain vitamin E, an antioxidant vitamin that is often deficient in the American diet.8

  • Food sources of monounsaturated fats: Olive oil, sesame oil, avocado, nuts*, and seeds5

  • Food sources of polyunsaturated fats: Safflower oil, sunflower oil, and fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, herring, and trout) 5

*While nuts are a good quality fat, avoid giving them to your baby and toddler as they are choking hazard.11 Instead, try offering them in the form of nut butters as a thin spread on fruit or toast, or added to a smoothie.

Read more: Prevent Choking in Infants and Toddlers

Essential fatty acids (EFAs)

EFAs are polyunsaturated fats considered “essential” because of the body’s inability to produce these important nutrients on its own.4 EFAs come in 2 groups: omega-3 fatty acids and omega 6 fatty acids, each with its own subgroups.4

While pregnant, omega-3s may help increase the length of gestation slightly, and while more studies are needed, there is the potential for lowering blood sugar levels during pregnancy as well.25,26

Omega 3 fatty acids are especially important for optimal fetal, infant, and early childhood growth. DHA, EPA ,and ALA make up the family of omega 3s.6 DHA is the major omega-3 involved in the development of the brain, nervous system, and retina.

  • Food sources of EPA and DHA: Fatty fish (or fish oil supplements) including salmon, herring, sardines, mackerel, and sea bass.

  • Food sources of ALA: Flaxseed oil, chia seeds, walnuts, canola oil, and soybean oil.

  • Food sources of Omega-6: Canola, flaxseed, corn, sunflower, safflower, and soybean oils.6

ALA needs to be converted to DHA and EPA before the body can use it.27 Our bodies convert ALA to the other omega-3s at a very low rate. For this reason, fatty cold-water fish are the best source of omega-3s for our body to use.6

DHA and EPA can also be gotten from algae supplements, from eating seaweed, or from DHA fortified foods (such as DHA fortified plant-based milk alternatives) should you be avoiding animal products for dietary reasons.28,29

Saturated fat

Saturated fats are solid at room temperature (example: butter), and often come from animal sources.15

Saturated fats are linked to an increase in “bad” cholesterol and too much may increase your risk for heart disease.15

  • Food sources of saturated fat: Red meat, butter, cheese, ice cream, highly processed foods, fried foods, baked goods, coconut oil, and palm oil.15

Note that coconut oil has risen in popularity in recent years due to its unique chemical composition. Coconut oil is particularly rich in lauric acid, a fatty acid that can help raise “good” cholesterol, however, its saturated fat content can still raise “bad” cholesterol as well.16

Sufficient evidence does not exist to show that coconut oil is more healthful or better for you than any other saturated fat, so just as with all saturated fats, coconut oil should be consumed in moderation.16

Trans fat

Trans fats are man-made fats that take a good unsaturated fat and make it solid by a process called hydrogenation. This is often done to lengthen the shelf life of a food product.4

Unfortunately, this process creates fats that are unhealthy for the body. Consumption of trans fats may increase triglycerides and “bad” cholesterol, as well as decrease “good” cholesterol, all of which may contribute to poor heart health.17

  • Food sources of trans fats: Shortening, margarine; processed baked goods such as cookies, cakes, pie crust, and doughnuts; fast foods, some nondairy creamers, some peanut butters, and some brands of microwaveable popcorn.17

You’ll know a food has trans fats in it if you find ‘partially hydrogenated oil’ in the ingredient list.17

Dietary cholesterol

Cholesterol is a waxy substance made in our bodies naturally and also found in food.22 The cholesterol that comes from food, or dietary cholesterol, is found in animal-based foods like meat, poultry, dairy and eggs.23

While those with heart disease or diabetes should still be mindful of their portions of high-cholesterol foods, it’s actually the refined carbohydrates (think processed grains and sugar) and excess saturated fats found foods that have the potential to raise your blood cholesterol levels much more so than eating foods that contain cholesterol itself.24

Tips on getting more beneficial fats in your and your child’s diet

Offer your child high quality fat sources

Fat is important for your child’s development, so do not restrict fat in your child’s diet until after the age of 2.9,10 This means that if your child transitions from breastmilk or formula to cow’s milk, choose whole fat varieties of milk and other dairy products unless otherwise directed by your healthcare provider.9,10

Offer plenty of mono- and polyunsaturated fats (altered to the appropriate texture), such as fish, eggs, nut and seed butters*, and avocado, all in a texture and size your child can handle.

Remember that whole nuts and seeds are a choking hazard for children under the age of 4.11

After age 2, your child should be following the same healthy dietary pattern as you: rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, and other protein-rich foods along with high quality fats in moderation.9

Learn more:

What Type of Milk should my Toddler Drink?

Learning to Love Healthy Foods

Limit saturated fat

Limiting red meat, processed meats, high-fat dairy, and other saturated fat foods is important for your overall health. While you want to keep a good amount of fat in your young child’s diet, after the age of 2 the goal is to limit saturated fat just like you do for yourself.

Note that these foods, particularly dairy and red meat, still have other important nutrients for your child, so the goal is not to skip them altogether but rather to limit them to a few times per week while favoring the better-for-you unsaturated fats.

Learn about:

Why is Iron Important for my Baby and Toddler?

Why does Calcium Matter for Baby, Tot, and Mama?

Why does Vitamin D Matter for Baby, Tot, and Mama?

Avoid trans fat

The good news is that partially hydrogenated oils, which are the main source of trans fats, were banned by the FDA in the US in 2015.18 Most food manufacturers had until 2018 to comply with this new regulation.18

Eat more beneficial fats

Sources of mono and polyunsaturated fats include olives and olive oil, canola oil, avocados, peanuts and peanut oil, nuts (such as almonds and walnuts), nut butters, nut oils, seeds, seed butters and seed oils, and fatty fish (such as wild salmon and trout).

For adults, nuts and seeds are easy snacks to grab and go and they can also be added to salads or cooked grains.

For both adults and children, try smearing nut butter on whole grain toast or fresh fruit.* Add avocado to sandwiches, toast, salads, quesadillas, and tacos.

You can also make your own salad dressing by combining one part vinegar to two parts olive oil. Toss in some salt, pepper, and garlic for more zing. Or try making a vegetarian bowl with a whole grain, your choice of non-starchy veggies, seeds, avocado, and drizzle with olive oil.

For your little one, include lots of foods high in unsaturated fats that are in a texture and size they can handle.

Try these recipes for your little one:

Avocado Green Smoothie

Carrot, Peach, Avocado & Flaxseed Puree

Crispy Herb Salmon Bites with Steamed Broccoli and Cauliflower

Avocado toast with Hard Boiled Egg

Avocado Tuna Salad in Mini Pita Pockets (for even more unsaturated fats, swap out tuna for canned salmon)

Grilled Nut Butter & Berry Sandwich with Chia

*Before introducing food allergens to your child, speak with baby’s pediatrician about how and when to begin introducing these foods safely.

Read more: Introducing Major Allergens to your Infant

Incorporate plenty of the essential fatty acids, especially DHA

Pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers are recommended to eat 2 to 3 servings of a variety of low-mercury fish each week; while young children are recommended to eat about 2 servings per week.19

Learn more: Meal Plan For Trading up Your Fats

Pay attention to portion size

Remember that because fats are higher in calories than proteins and carbohydrates, they should be incorporated in moderation for everyone over the age of 2. While high quality dietary fats have many health benefits, it’s still important to keep your total calorie intake in check.

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For more on this topic, check out the following articles:

Give Your Baby’s Developing Brain a Boost

Food Safety During Pregnancy

Healthy Snacks For Babies and Toddlers

Picky Eating: Taste Imprinting During Pregnancy and Breastfeeding

Which Foods Should I Avoid While Breastfeeding?