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At baby’s first birthday, they have graduated to becoming a “toddler.” The toddler years are a time of rapid growth and development, exploration, increased independence, and awareness. One factor that is important for a toddler’s immune system, growth, and healthy eye and brain development is dietary fat.
Did you know that experts recommend that babies and toddlers get almost 50 percent of their daily calories from dietary fats before the age of 2? According to the journal American Family Physician, restricting fat intake in toddlers could impede growth and cause nutrient deficiencies.
Saturated fats are considered stable fats, which means they are less likely to become damaged or oxidized. The human cell is approximately 50 percent saturated, so saturated fats help to provide cellular stability. Saturated fats are found in animal products like cream and butter, as well as tropical fats like coconut and palm oils. Animals that are allowed to graze on grass produce fats that are higher in a compound called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which may be linked to improved body composition and weight management.
Plentiful in the typical “Mediterranean diet,” monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and are also considered fairly “stable fats.” Olive and avocado oils are rich in monounsaturated fats. Avocado oil has a high smoking point, which makes it a good oil for cooking at higher heats. In addition, it remains liquid at colder temperatures than olive oil does. Both oils are associated with benefits to blood pressure, cholesterol and heart health.
Liquid at room temperature, polyunsaturated fats are less stable and more prone to oxidation. Polyunsaturated fats are broken into several different omega fatty acids, including omega-3s and omega-6s. Omega-6s are predominant in vegetable oils and products made with them. The typical standard American diet tends to be high in omega-6 fatty acids and low in omega-3s. Studies have found that diets containing high levels of omega-6 fatty acids may be linked to chronic inflammation, as well as an increase in the likelihood of childhood allergies developing.
The body cannot manufacture omega-3s. Considered “essential” fats, omega-3s must be consumed in the diet to be introduced into the body. They are found in cold-water fish, fish oils, algae, and some nuts and seeds, like chia, flax and hemp. Omega-3s are particularly important for brain, eye, cellular and mental health.
The three most important omega-3s are docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). DHA is important for brain, cellular, and eye health. EPA is converted into DHA, and ALA must be converted into DHA and EPA forms to be utilized.
Fat comprises most of the human brain — approximately 60 percent! It only makes sense that dietary fats (fatty acids) play an important role in baby and toddler’s brain development and function. Omega-3 fats are especially important for the brain.
Fats are also important for eye health. According to the American Optometric Association, DHA is found in the highest concentrations in the retina, with studies supporting that optimal omega-3 intake is required for eye health and visual development.
Diets rich in plant-based foods provide important vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytonutrients. But did you know that some of those vitamins require fat to be absorbed? Diets rich in fatty acids help the body absorb and use fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E and K). These vitamins play a critical role in immune, cellular and eye health.
A couple decades ago, obesity was practically unheard of in toddlers, but it is becoming increasingly prevalent today. Research shows that the majority of toddlers who are overweight grow up to be overweight adults. While the finger is often pointed at dietary fats, a more likely culprit is sugar. Studies show that the consumption of full-fat dairy products is associated with less weight gain and lower risks of developing diabetes.
Does your toddler seem hungry all the time? Do they want to snack endlessly? They might need more healthy fats in their diet. Dietary fat is a concentrated energy source, delivering 9 calories per gram compared to 4 calories per gram of carbohydrate or protein. Foods with healthy fats help us to feel fuller longer. In addition to contributing to optimal satiety, fats provide longer-lasting energy. Including healthy fats in every meal or snack will help avoid the crash and burn or moodiness that can follow a high-sugar snack.
Omega-3 fatty acids are important for mental health and mood balance. A 2003 study found that using targeted nutrients, including omega-3 fatty acids, had a positive effect on behavior in kids.
Sugar intake in kids — including toddlers — has skyrocketed over the past several decades. Diets that are high in simple sugars tend to stimulate the “sweet tooth,” leading to more sugar cravings and causing the dreaded sugar “rush and crash.” When diets are too high in sugar and blood sugar is poorly regulated, it can lead to mood swings, fatigue and a lowered immune system response.
Over the long term, high-sugar diets can increase the risk of diseases like diabetes, fatty liver, heart disease and even cancer. Because of the negative health implications of too much sugar in kids, the American Heart Association recently released new guidelines for limiting added sugars in children, calling for no more than 4 teaspoons daily of added sugars in toddlers over age 2 and zero added sugars for toddlers under age 2.
Dietary fats help regulate and stabilize blood sugar levels. Studies show that the consumption of full-fat dairy products is associated with less weight gain and a reduced risk of developing diabetes.
Toddlers are gaining exposure to new foods and developing their taste preferences — and boy, do they let you know if they don’t like something! Fats like avocado add a richness and creaminess to foods, helping to satisfy the palate.
Trans fat is a type of fat that is created from hydrogenation. According to The Worlds Healthiest Foods, hydrogenation “is the forced chemical addition of hydrogen into omega-6 polyunsaturated oils to make them hard at room temperatures, primarily as a cheaper and less perishable substitute for butter.” Trans fats can be found in margarines and foods containing partially hydrogenated oils, such as pre-made refrigerator dough and commercial baked goods. The body has a hard time metabolizing hydrogenated fat due to its molecular structure, so trans fats tend to interfere with blood flow, contributing to heart disease. According to a study in the Netherlands, compared to saturated fats, trans fats reduced blood vessel function by 30 percent.
Fred Kummerow, an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois who has spent nearly six decades studying lipid biochemistry, states that “trans fats gum up the cellular machinery that keep blood moving through arteries and veins.” Because trans fats “interfere with the body’s ability to perform certain tasks critical to good health,” they cause a buildup of plaque that may contribute to heart disease, he adds.
Regarded as “unhealthy” for years and years, all fats are not “bad.” In fact, healthy fats are critically important for toddlers’ development, energy, health, immunity, brain, eyes and mental health. Just choose your fats wisely, and don’t underestimate the benefits of including them in your toddler’s diet!
About the Author: A nutritionist and the author of The Perfect Metabolism Plan, Sara Vance is a passionate advocate for natural approaches to health. She regularly offers cooking and group classes and has developed a series of online courses to empower people to use foods to balance their metabolism and overall health. As a mom and a specialist in childhood nutrition, Sara loves working with kids, speaking frequently at school assemblies and leading children’s workshops. Sara is a frequent guest on the Fox 5 San Diego show, CBS Los Angeles, KUSI and CW 6. She has contributed to Delicious Living, Mind Body Green and Refinery29. Sara has also filmed videos for eHow and created a Kids Yoga series for GaiamTV.
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