“Jack Sprat could eat no fat, His wife could eat no lean” has been in the English literature since the early 1600’s and appeared in Mother Goose’s Melody in 1765. Young children could tell you that Jack was very, very thin and his wife was fat. Fat as a food or energy source has been known to be associated with fat bodies. Fat has become somewhat of a “dirty” word because of its relationship with shaming and bad health such a heart disease, strokes, fatty livers, painful joints, diabetes, etc., etc., etc.
It may come as a surprise for some that fat is an essential food. Fats are made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen like carbohydrates but in different arrangements. This make them easier to store and be available when the sugars of the carbohydrates are used up. Fats are divided chemically into saturated and unsaturated fats. “Saturated” fats tend to come from animal fats (beef, pork, ham, whole milk, ice cream) and “unsaturated” tend to come from vegetables. “Trans” fat is an artificial fat made from vegetable oils in the early 1900’s. It has been found to be significantly unhealthy and is banned from foods since 2020. Small amounts may be found in highly processed foods so read your labels.
Parents of infants and preschoolers should not aim for low-fat meals for two basic reasons. Low-fat diets may actually promote unhealthy weight gain especially if dietary fats are replaced with added sugars. Second, but equally important, is that fat is an essential part of a well-balanced diet and critical for a child’s growth and brain development.
It has been said that the brain is a hungry organ. The adult brain makes up about 2% of the body’s weight but uses 20% of the energy. In an infant the energy used by the brain is 65% of the energy available. Maybe this is why they sleep so much and why starving infants have permanent injury to their brain’s development.
Childhood is the best time to start heart healthy eating habits. However adult goals for cutting back on total fat and saturated fats are not meant generally for children younger than 2 years. Fat supplies the energy or calories for brain growth and active play. After age 2 children should be served foods that are lower in fat and saturated fats.
Healthychildren.org suggest that instead of focusing on a low-fat diet for these younger children, parents should focus on replacing unhealthy fats with healthy fats. They note that the saturated fat in whole milk, coconut oil or salmon is different from the saturated fat found in pizza, French fries and processed meat products. Fats should make up less than 30% of the total calories in a child’s daily diet, with no more than about 10% of the total calories coming from saturated fat and the remainder(20%) from unsaturated fats, which are liquid at room temperature. These include vegetable oils coming from corn, safflower, soybean, olives and even pecans.
by Sally Robinson, MD Clinical Professor
Keeping Kids Healthy
Also See: UTMB Pediatrics - Pediatric Primary Care