High quality dietary fats: Good for you and baby

What to Know

  • Why our bodies and our babies need healthy fats
  • Good food sources for high quality fats

Dietary fat is essential to our health. Fats play a number of important roles in the body, from protecting organs, to facilitating the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E and K), to carrying out chemical reactions related to growth, immune function, reproduction and metabolism.

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For your baby or toddler, fat is an especially important nutrient. Your child’s rapid growth requires a large number of calories in proportion to his body size, and fat provides more than twice the calories per gram than proteins and carbohydrates.

Because different types of fats affect the body in different ways, it’s the type of fat we eat more than the amount that impacts our health. In fact, for the first time in 4 decades, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, a scientific board appointed to review literature and make recommendations to the USDA for the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (which are updated every 5 years), did not recommend an upper limit for total consumed fat at all.

So which types of fat should we eat and which should we avoid? The “bad” fats, those linked to poor health and chronic conditions, are trans fats which include partially hydrogenated oils and also saturated fats. The “good” fats, shown to be good for health because they can help lower cholesterol and blood lipids which is associated with heart health, and lessen the effects of inflammation, are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (which include the essential fatty acids).

Now let’s take a deeper dive into these various types of fat:

  • Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat – Both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats may help reduce “bad” cholesterol and raise “good” cholesterol. Additionally, oils rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats contain vitamin E, an antioxidant vitamin that is often deficient in the American diet. Olive oil, sesame oil, avocado, nuts and seeds are rich in monounsaturated fats. Safflower oil, sunflower oil and fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, herring and trout) are rich in polyunsaturated fat.
  • Essential fatty acids (EFAs) – EFAs are polyunsaturated fats considered “essential” because of the body’s inability to produce these important nutrients on its own. EFAs come in 2 groups: omega 3 fatty acids and omega 6 fatty acids, each with its own subgroups.
    • Omega 3 is especially important for optimal fetal, infant, and early childhood growth. DHA, EPA and ALA make up the family of omega 3s. DHA is the major omega 3 involved in the development of the brain, nervous system, and retina. EPA and DHA come primarily from fish (or fish oil supplements), while ALA comes from vegetable soybean and canola oils, flaxseeds, walnuts. Fish is the best source of omega 3s. If you don’t eat fish, your body can convert ALA into DHA, although research has shown that the conversion rates are low.
    • Omega-6 fatty acids are found in several oils including canola, flaxseed, corn, sunflower, safflower, and soybean.
  • Saturated fat – Linked to an increase in “bad” cholesterol, foods with a high proportion of saturated fat are red meat, butter, cheese, ice cream, highly processed foods, coconut oil and palm oil. 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 still raises “bad” cholesterol as well. 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.
  • Trans fat – The chemical alteration of unsaturated fats creates trans fats, a process utilized by the food industry to achieve certain properties in food products (to lengthen the shelf life, for example). Consumption of trans fats may increase triglycerides and “bad” cholesterol and decreases “good” cholesterol, all of which may contribute to poor heart health. Trans fats are typically found in processed baked goods such as cookies, cakes and crackers, some peanut butter and some brands of microwaveable popcorn.
  • Dietary cholesterol – Cholesterol is not a fat, but rather a waxy substance made in our bodies naturally and also found in food. The cholesterol that comes from food, or dietary cholesterol, is found in animal-based foods like meat, poultry, dairy and eggs. 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 in these foods that can raise your blood cholesterol levels much more so than eating foods that contain cholesterol itself.

What to Do

Offer your baby high quality fat sources

Do not restrict fat in your child’s diet until age 2. This means that if your child transitions from breastmilk or formula to cow’s milk, choose whole fat varieties unless otherwise directed by your healthcare provider. And offer plenty of mono- and polyunsaturated fats (altered to the appropriate texture), such as fish, eggs, seeds, nuts and avocado.

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

Remember that breastmilk or formula (or both!) will provide your baby with all of the nutrients he needs until he is ready to start eating solids (ideally around 6 months). Between 6 and 12 months, these same liquids continue to fulfill the majority of a child’s calorie and nutrient needs. Solid food feeding at this stage is less about nutrition and more about the exposure to a variety of flavors and textures that will positively influence your baby’s food preferences and healthy taste development. Your child will accept new foods more easily during the 6-12 month window than later in life.

After 12 months, solid foods play a major role in nourishing your toddler and the more healthy foods he eats, the less he will rely on liquid calories.

Limit saturated fat

Because red meat, eggs and full fat dairy foods have other important nutrients, the goal is not to skip them altogether but rather to limit them to a few times per week while favoring healthier unsaturated fats.

Unless otherwise directed by your child’s healthcare provider, continue choosing whole milk (beginning after age 1) and other full-fat dairy products, like yogurt and cheese (beginning some time after 6 months), through your child’s second birthday as these provide the fat and calories needed for his growth and developing brain. For a complete discussion of cow’s milk and milk alternatives, see Choosing milk and milk alternatives for your baby and toddler.

Avoid trans fat

Partially hydrogenated oils which are the main source of trans fats, were been banned by the FDA in the US in 2015. Most food manufacturers have until 2018 to comply with this new regulation. While this is great news for your health, it is still important to check the labels. You can determine if a food product contains trans fats by looking at the nutrition facts panel.

Incorporate plenty of the essential fatty acids, especially DHA

Pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers and young children should eat 8 to 12 ounces (or 2 to 3 servings) of a variety of fish each week from options that are lower in mercury. Low mercury fish include wild salmon, tilapia, cod, shrimp, catfish, canned light tuna and pollock. High mercury fish are shark, king mackerel, tilefish, swordfish and big eye or ahi tuna.

Eat more “good” fat

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).

Nuts and seeds are easy snacks to grab and go and they can also be added to salads or cooked grains. Try smearing nut butter on whole grain toast or fresh fruit. Add avocado to sandwiches, salads, quesadillas and tacos.

You can also make your own salad dressing by combining one part vinegar (whichever kind you prefer) to two parts high quality olive oil. Or try making a vegetarian bowl with a whole grain, your choice of nonstarchy veggies, seeds, avocado and drizzle with olive oil.

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.

Sources

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