The child obesity epidemic is no joke; you've heard that 17 percent of American children are obese and you want to do the right thing for your growing child. You control you own weight by limiting your fat intake—even foregoing fat in your daily diet altogether— so why not do the same for your toddler? What harm could it do? Well, according to many experts on childhood nutrition, limiting—or eliminating—fat intake for young children isn't wise.
Dr. Greg Lawton, author of the blog A Musing Pediatrician, says, "Toddlers are in their prime years of brain development. This means making use of dietary fat to properly grow a brain, in addition to having higher energy needs due to pure growth. Children under three years of age actually need fat in their diets."
While AAP guidelines recommend no restrictions on fat intake for children under two, a recent Purdue University study suggests that the 5-year mark may be the "sweet spot" age for fat limitations to begin. Low-fat diets may hinder crucial maturation in very young children—brain growth, healthy eyesight and nerve development up to age five all depend on fat, especially abundant omega-3 fatty acids, a type of "good" fat found in vegetable oils and fish. A generous amount of dietary fat is necessary for many other essential processes in growing children as well, such as bone and muscle development.
But don't throw caution to the winds and invite your two-year-old to join you in a junk-food feast just yet—full-fat doesn't necessarily mean fast-food. Follow these sensible steps as you plan high-calorie—but healthy—meals for your little one:
- Good fat v. bad fat. Omega-3's and essential fatty acids (EFAs) have many benefits for adults and infants alike. Good fats are found in kitchen staples like fish, olive oils, whole milk, nuts and other unprocessed foods. These essential fats promote absorption of fat-soluble vitamins—such as vitamins A, E, D and K—and strengthen nerve connections in growing brains. As you introduce new foods to your growing toddler, stick with the fats found in plant foods, fish and dairy. Avoid "bad" fat products, full of saturated and trans-fats that are almost always hidden in highly processed snack food. Skip on anything that's packaged, processed or says "partially hydrogenated" on the label.
- Whole food rules. Processed food not only contains more "bad" fat, it's likely to have other strange, unpronounceable ingredients that you don't want your child ingesting. Whole foods are balanced by nature and the fat that they contain is paired with essential nutrients. All of the elements work together, making dishes with the fewest added ingredients the best bet for your budding foodie. Full-fat dairy products such as cheese or yogurt, nuts and nut butters (barring allergies) and avocados are ideal healthy-fat (and scrumptious) options for your little one's meals.
- Balance is best. Balance high-fat foods with healthy veggies. Green vegetables with real butter can make the healthy stuff more appealing to picky palates. Pairing good fat with a veggie-packed plate can help speed absorption of vital fat-soluble vitamins and nutrients. Whole milk organic yogurt is also great choice for your growing toddler's brain and bones. Try making flavorful sauces or dressings with olive oil (loaded with essentials fatty acids) or a yogurt base to add interest to vegetable dishes. Flavorful dipping sauces can keep your child engaged at mealtime and will teach him to love—and have fun—with his healthy food.
- Teach by example. Your child's old enough to pick up on eating habits and he'll want to do what you do—so it's time to ditch the doughnuts and opt for healthier fare. Incorporate plenty of omega-3's and plant-based fats into the family diet, and make a show of enjoying your nutritional meals. As a parent you can eat less of a specific fatty food at mealtimes—such as a few slices of avocado or a sprinkle of chopped nuts atop a salad—but don't separate your food from your child's. Omega-3's are good for everyone!
- Get physical. If you're worried about weight and fitness, encourage physical activity for your child instead of restricting calories and fat. A rotation of healthy dishes combined with robust activity is possible even for the tiniest tot, so break out of the stroller and let your little one walk, toddle or run. With a well-rounded diet that includes plenty of good fats, vitamins and protein, your little one will have plenty of energy to burn off!
- Taper off slowly. As your child grows, introduce more low-fat foods into his diet and let him get used to a variety of options. At about 3 to 4 years of age, try substituting lower-fat (1 or 2 percent) milk for his usual whole milk. Reduced fat yogurt can also be swapped for the full-fat kind. Beware, however, that many manufacturers boost the sugar levels in foods as they lower fat content. Cereals, yogurt and snack products are the worst offenders, so continue to read labels and watch for excessive sugars. "Low-fat" doesn't always mean healthier!
Remember, there's no single rule that fits every child. It's enough to know that as far as fat is concerned, it's not smart to apply adult guidelines to children under 5. Restricting dietary fat, while generally good for adults, is not so great for children. As always, be aware that your toddler has unique nutritional needs and consult your pediatrician throughout childhood to determine what's best for your growing child.