Pediatrics Articles

Fats and oils for children’s health

by Dr. Randy

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Fats

Children need fats. Low-fat foods can create fatty-acid deficiencies. Children especially need saturated fats and cholesterol to maintain healthy tissues and healthy cell membranes. Cholesterol and saturated fats from breast milk, organic eggs, cream, coconut oil, and meats are essential parts of your child’s diet. Children also need omega-3 fats for brain development. Breast milk contains the omega-3 fat DHA for this reason.

Vegetable oils

Most children and adults eat too many polyunsaturated fats in the form of vegetable oils (omega-6 fats). Children get all the omega-6 essential oils they need from breast milk, grains, seeds, vegetables, and nuts. They should eat as little additional polyunsaturated oils in the form of vegetable oils as possible (corn oil, canola oil, safflower oil, etc.). A diet high in polyunsaturated oils impairs growth and learning, and promotes heart disease, cancer, and immune system dysfunction. This process arises when polyunsaturated oils become oxidized after exposure to heat, oxygen, and moisture in processing and cooking. They release free radicals that attack cell membranes and damage DNA, initiating cellular and tissue damage that can promote tumor growth and inflammation of blood vessels with plaque formation (Fallon, 2001).

The best oils to use at home are extra virgin olive oil for salads and marinades (monunsaturated fat), and olive oil, butter, or coconut oil for cooking. Olive oil will not cause any health problems, but it does not contain either of the two essential fatty acids LA or ALA. Coconut oil contains health-promoting lauric acid, which helps prevent infection and aids in the prevention of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

Saturated fats

Saturated fats are necessary for calcium to be effectively incorporated into bones. At least 50 percent of dietary fat should be saturated (Watkins, 1996). Omega-3 fats are retained better in tissues in the presence of saturated fats, and saturated fats promote healthy immune systems because of their antimicrobial properties that prevent the buildup of harmful microorganisms in the digestive tract. Contrary to accepted beliefs, saturated fats do not cause heart disease, they prevent heart disease and cancer.

Cholesterol acts as a precursor to vital hormones including sex hormones and corticosteroids that protect the body against heart disease and cancer. Cholesterol is also a precursor of vitamin D that is essential to bone growth. Babies and children need cholesterol-rich foods to ensure proper development of the brain and nervous system (Fallon, 2001). Breast milk is especially rich in cholesterol.

Limit fried foods

Fried foods are unhealthy because extreme heat damages fats. The damaged polyunsaturated oil and cholesterol release free radicals into the body that will in turn damage tissues and cells and promote disease processes. In addition, many fried foods are cooked with hydrogenated fats. Children should limit their intake of commercial french fries, potato chips, and corn chips. These are not health-promoting foods.

Another problem with fried foods is the presence of a class of carcinogens called acrylamides. These are formed when starchy carbohydrates like potatoes, corn, oats, or wheat are subjected to high temperatures (above 360 degrees) for prolonged periods, as in deep-frying. French fries, potato chips, doughnuts, and even oven-baked french fries contain acrylamide. This chemical is monitored in drinking water because of its ability to cause cancer.

Omega-3 fats

By contrast omega-3 fats have health-promoting and far-reaching preventive health effects. They create a flexible and permeable cell membrane that allows nutrients to pass easily into the cell. Omega-3 fats may be the key to prevention of heart disease, cancer, and arthritis, and the best thing going for allergies, asthma, and healthy brain functions.

Pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers should take a DHA-containing omega-3 supplement to ensure adequate levels of DHA in breast milk and adequate brain development in their babies. The DHA content of most American women’s breast milk is lower than that in milk from women in other countries, and the DHA content of a woman’s breast milk correlates with her dietary intake of DHA. Vegetarian women have the lowest levels of DHA in their breast milk (Fidler, 2000). When women supplement their diets with DHA in the form of fish oil, high-DHA eggs, or a DHA-containing algae capsule the content of DHA in their breast milk increases. The increase in breast milk DHA also translates into higher DHA levels in infants (Jensen, 2000). In another study, infants whose mothers took fish oil supplements during pregnancy also had higher blood levels of DHA at birth than a control group that did not take a supplement (Connor, 1996).

It is difficult for children to get enough omega-3 fats from their diets once they are no longer breastfeeding. Children need to have supplements of omega-3 fats. The best sources of the omega-3 fats are cod liver oil (1 tspn per 50 lbs of body weight), fish oil capsules (containing at least 250 mg of DHA for children over 7 years old), or DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) supplements derived from algae (Neuromins). Chicken, eggs, and beef are also sources of omega-3 fats if the animals eat green plants and not just grains. Therefore, only cage-free chickens that eat green plants or algae and pasture-fed cattle are reliable sources. Small fish (wild salmon and sardines) are another good source of omega-3 fats, but larger fish (tuna, shark, swordfish, mackerel) and farm-raised (Atlantic) salmon may be contaminated with mercury and harmful pesticides. Children should not eat these larger ocean fish or farmed fish.

Healthy fats

In summary, give your children good amounts of saturated fats (eggs, butter, dairy, meats, coconut oil). Avoid using vegetable oils (except for olive oil). Take an omega-3 supplement while pregnant and breastfeeding. Give older children omega-3 fats (cage-free chicken eggs and an omega-3 supplement in fish or vegetarian form).

 

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