I recently wrote all about protein for babies and toddlers, and so in this blog I wanted to focus on another nutrient I am often asked about: Fat for Babies and Children.
Fat is one of the macronutrients, along with protein and carbohydrates, that make up the core of our diets. Fat is made up of different fatty acids. Which, depending on their chemical structure, can be classified as either saturated, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats. The structural differences between the types of fat relate to the health effects that each type of fat may provide.
Why is fat important for babies and children?
Fat is an important nutrient for babies and children for a variety of reasons:
- Energy: Fat is the most energy dense of all of the macronutrients. It provides more than double the calories per gram than protein or carbohydrates (9kcal/g for fat vs ~4kcal/g for both protein and carbohydrates). For young children, this is important as they need a lot of energy to support normal growth
- Growth and development: Fats are an important structural part of many of the cells within our bodies. Depending on the structure of the fats themselves, they have varying influences on many of the biological processes that are key to the normal growth, development and functioning of our bodies. The brain is particularly rich in fat – around 60% of the brain is fat
- Nutrition: Many fat containing foods such as dairy products, fish (including oily), nuts, seeds, olive oil and avocados provide a variety of other vitamins and minerals. These are all important to growing children
- Vitamins: There are certain vitamins (A,D,E and K) that are “fat-soluble”. Meaning they are much better absorbed when consumed with fat in the diet. Therefore, including plenty of healthy fat sources in your little one’s diet can help to ensure these vitamins are being properly absorbed and used by the body
- Essential fatty acids: There are certain types of polyunsaturated fats. These are known as LA and ALA fats, which our bodies cannot produce themselves. Meaning that they must be obtained from our diets (hence the word essential). Without these fats, certain physiological functions would not be carried out. Including blood clotting, wound healing and inflammation
Different types of fat
As mentioned above, there are a number of different types of fat. Each with their own nutritional profiles. Below is a little more detail on each of the different types of fat:
This is the type of fat that is most often spoken about as needing to be limited as part of a healthy diet. This is because a high intake of saturated fats is associated with increases in blood cholesterol levels and heart disease later in life. Some foods that are higher in saturated fat such as cheese are good to include in your little one’s diet. They provide important nutrients such as B vitamins and calcium. However other foods such as cakes, biscuits and pastries are often high in saturated fat but provide little in the way of vitamins and minerals. So should be somewhat limited for young children.
Unsaturated fats are generally found in plant foods, such as olive oil, nuts, seeds and avocados. For babies and young children, these are all great foods to include regularly in their meals. They’re a good source of energy as well as vitamins and minerals important for growth and development.
These are a type of polyunsaturated fats, most readily found in oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines. I’ve written before specifically about Omega-3 fatty acids, which you can read here.
Trans fats have been largely eliminated from the UK food system. They are therefore not a significant concern, either for children or adults. However, they can still be naturally present in some dairy products and meats. As well as foods that contain hydrogenated fat/oil or partially hydrogenated/oil. Such as cakes, biscuits and pastries, ready meals or margarine and vegetable oils. Ideally cakes, biscuits and pastries should be somewhat limited for young children. They can be high in added sugars and low in other vitamins and minerals.
What foods contain fat?
Source: NDNS a 2003 and b 2011 – adapted from: https://www.nutrition.org.uk/nutritionscience/nutrients-food-and-ingredients/fat.html?start=4
For babies and toddlers up to the age of two, full-fat dairy products are always recommended. After the age of two, as long as your child is eating and growing well, you can introduce lower-fat dairy products. From the age of 5, children can follow the same guidelines as adults when it comes to healthy eating. Including for fat, which includes low-fat options such as plain low-fat yoghurt.
How much fat should my baby or toddler have?
There are no specific recommendations for how much fat children under 5 should have on a daily basis. For children over 5 (and adults), the recommendations are:
- Total Fat: should make up no more than 35% of total energy intake
- Saturated fat: should make up no more than 11% of total energy intake
For children under 5, try to focus on varying the types of fat offered. Including plenty of sources of unsaturated fats from ground nuts, seeds, olive/rapeseed oil, avocados. As well as oily fish, cheese and yoghurts (or fortified alternatives) to ensure they’re getting a good variety.
Fat on nutrition labels
Traffic light labelling – the graphic below shows the amounts that are used to calculate the traffic light labelling you’ll often see on the front of food packaging. Remember, for young babies low fat options are not ideal.
- “Fat-Free” & “Low-Fat” – For a product to be labelled fat-free, it should have no more than 0.5g of fat per 100g/100ml, whilst for low-fat, it must have no more than 3g of fat per 100g/100ml. Neither of these would be recommended for babies or young children – always opt for the full fat version
- “Reduced-fat” – for a product to be labelled as reduced fat, it would be required to contain at least 30% less fat than the product it is being compared to. Bear in mind that the fat content of the reduced fat version may still be high. However, these products are not necessary for little ones and as above, the regular, full-fat options are the best choice