Wherever you look on around on the media, its hard to avoid hearing something about “low fat” or “fat free” foods and how to avoid eating fat or how damaging it can be. We are constantly learning and hearing about the “good” and “bad” fats and those that increase our cholesterol and those that decrease it etc. Some of us may even be avoiding such fats for medical reasons. So when it comes to cooking for the family, the question might arise as to whether the kids should also be sharing the same diet as the adults, and whether the fat is ok, or should be avoided.
First of all, what are good and bad fats?
Fats are energy dense nutrients as they contain a lot more calories than carbohydrates and proteins, that is why they are often associated with obesity. But not all fats are bad.
Hydrogenated / partially hydrogenated fats are found in pastry, pies, cakes, ice creams, desserts, biscuits, certain cereal bars, and crackers. They are man made fats that contain trans fats and will increase heart disease and cancer risk. They raise bad cholesterol and decrease good cholesterol.
Saturated fats are found in meat, burgers, sausages, butter, full fat milk, cheese, cream, coconut oil, palm oil. These raise cholesterol and increase heart disease and cancer risk.
Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated fats are found in vegetable oils, oily fish, nuts, seeds, avocados. These are good fats, essential for health, and some may lower the ‘bad’ cholesterol levels and reduce heart disease.
Omega 3 and 6 found in oily fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring), walnuts, pumpkin seeds, eggs, soya beans, flax seed, sweet potatoes. These are excellent fats and are essential for overall health and brain development. They lower the risk of heart attack and strokes in adults and improve sports performance.
Why do children need fat in their diet?
Children need fat for fuel, especially if they are very active. Fat gives more calories (energy) than carbohydrates when it is broken down. Fats are needed to keep them warm
Fats are needed to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. If you give a fat free meal, for eg potato and carrots, there is nothing to absorb the fat soluble vitamins. So adding some cheese or butter to the potato will help the body absorb the Vitamin A of the carrot. Fats also transport nutrients around the body.
Essential fats cannot be manufactured by the body and need to be taken through the diet for growth, development and optimal health. These are the omega 3 and omega 6 oils. Fats are also needed for healthy cells in the body, to keep skin smooth and hair glossy, to make hormones and for healthy brain function.
Fats are also needed for taste and texture, and this is important for children because a little bit of fat can make eating more enjoyable. Since too much can be harmful, its all a matter of balance.
How much fat do children need?
Children need slightly more fat compared to their weight and calorie intake compared to adults. You cannot leave out fats from children’s diets because they might not get enough calories or fat-soluble vitamins. However too much fat may result in reduced performance, excess body fat and risks of obesity.
Some protein and dairy in the diet will already provide some fat, so all you have to add is a portion from the essential fats group (nuts, seeds, nut oils, oily fish). Children aged 5-15 years should get about 30% of their daily calories from fat, and most of this fat should come from ‘good’ fats.
What about babies and children under 5?
Most of the above applies with a few differences:
For the fist 6 months of life, a baby relies on human milk and infant formula, which has all the necessary nutrients in the right quantities. Once older babies start solids, they should be getting lots of good fats. Naturally occurring whole food fats are better, such as avocado, eggs, wild salmon and fatty fish (limited quantity because of mercury), butter and high fat dairy, quality grass-fed meat. Toddlers also need nutrient dense foods because they are growing fast and have high energy requirements. Energy should come mostly from carbohydrates and also fats, including full-fat dairy products such as milk, yoghurt and cheese. Children aged 1-3 should aim to consume about 300ml of milk or 3 servings or dairy foods daily. So toddlers should not be given low fat milk or plant based milk (as replacement of full fat) until they are 2 years old.
Healthy habits suitable for all ages
How do I provide my whole family with the right nutrition? Some ways to reduce fat can be applied at any age:
- Reduce processed meats: burgers, sausages, salami, bacon, fatty ham. When using meats, add veg and eg tinned beans to reduce the amount of meat you need
- Reduce processed foods that can have hidden fats eg home-made baked potato instead of oven chips.
- Limit fast food and only serve only occasionally: burgers, pizza with salamis, chicken nuggets, fried chicken, hotdogs, pasties and pies.
- Limit high fat sweet foods such as doughnuts, croissants, crisps, muffins, chocolate bars, biscuits. Prepare homemade muffins and cookies when possible, to control how much fat goes in them.
- Use full fat dairy only in moderation, use semi-skimmed milk when possible (over 2 years).
- Choose leaner versions of meat and serve smaller portions with the fat trimmed off eg chicken skin.
- Offer alternatives to cakes such as fresh or dried fruit, fruit bars, rice cakes etc and serve desserts with lower fat eg frozen yoghurt instead of ice cream and apple crumble instead of cake
- Choose low fat ways to cook eg grill, stir-fry, steam, air-fry instead of frying or roasting with fat.