During the first few years of life, your baby’s brain will grow tremendously. What many people don’t realize is that the brain is nearly 60% fat (1). This is why fat is one of the key nutrients I focus on when starting solids. Limiting fat in your baby’s diet is limiting their potential for brain growth! Now we know that not all fat is the same, so how do you choose the healthiest fats for your baby?
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What does fat do?
As mentioned before, fats are incredibly important for the brain. We find very high levels of DHA, a type of essential fatty acid, in the eyes, brain, and sperm cells (2). Fats are used in the membranes of our cells, making them integral for every part of our body.
To absorb fat-soluble vitamins (vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, and vitamin K), we also need fat. Fat is also a main component of energy, providing 9 kilocalories per gram. It is more energy dense than the other nutrients we eat, making it perfect for children with smaller stomachs but high energy needs. Our body stores fat to use as an energy source.
Types of Fats
All fats are made up of fatty acids. These fatty acids can be saturated or unsaturated. Depending on the ratio of the fatty acids in our fat sources, we tend to broadly categorize them. No fat source (avocado oil, butter, lard, etc) is made up of only 1 type of fat, but we will categorize them based on which fatty acids make up the majority of the fat.
If I had to pick a “bad” food, this might be it. Trans fats are unsaturated fats put through a chemical process to make them more shelf-stable. Great for companies trying to extend the shelf life of their products, not so great for us.
Trans fats can both raise your bad cholesterol (LDL) AND lower your good cholesterol (HDL), so if you have a kid with hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol), it is especially important to avoid these kinds of fats. In good news, they are mostly removed from our food supply. They will be clearly labeled on any food label or will be listed as partially hydrogenated oil in the ingredient list.
These fats are generally more stable fats and are solid at room temperature. Think fats on meats, butter, dairy. These fats tend to raise both your HDL and LDL, so are more neutral. General recommendations are to limit these fats, but if you are following a well balanced diet, you probably don’t need to worry too much about them.
For young children under the age of 2, the recommendation is to use whole fat dairy products. We do not recommend offering low fat options due to the high fat needs of young children.
These fats are generally what makes up our cooking oils or plant fats. They can be broken down into monounsaturated fats (olive oil, avocado oil) and polyunsaturated fats (fish, walnuts). Research has shown that replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats may help cholesterol levels.
Examples of monounsaturated fats include: canola oil, olive oil, and high oleic safflower and sunflower oils.
- Linoleic acid is the only omega 6 fatty acid that is essential in our diet, meaning we must eat it. Our bodies are unable to make it. In the US, intake of omega 6 fatty acids are usually adequate.
These are the fatty acids that people generally think of when they think of “heart healthy.” They are associated with being anti-inflammatory and are essential in the diet, meaning the body is unable to make them. They are broken down into 3 fatty acids:
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
ALA comes from plant oils, nuts, flaxseeds, walnuts, and chia seeds. EPA and DHA come from fish and seafood. ALA is the precursor for EPA and DHA. Because of this, eating EPA or DHA can be a bit easier for the body. Essentially you get to skip a step in the process of using it, which is why you may have heard the recommendation to get more fish in your diet.
If you are vegetarian (or just don’t like fish), you may consider an omega-3 supplement (talk to your doctor or a dietitian about any supplements). Keep in mind that fish may be contaminated with mercury, so it is recommended to avoid high mercury fish such as shark and swordfish and to limit moderate mercury fish such as albacore tuna to twice per week.
Unlike with many of the micronutrients, we don’t have a recommended intake of total fat or saturated fat. Instead, we use a macronutrient distribution range of 20-35%. This means that 20-35% of your calories should come from fat.
The adequate intake for infants 0-6 months is based off of what an exclusively breastfed baby would take (which is highly variable), but was estimated to be about 31 g/day. What a parent eats doesn’t affect how fatty breastmilk is, but can affect the DHA levels of the milk. A similar method was used for infants 7-12 months. No adequate intake was established for children over age 1.
Currently, we only have recommended intakes for ALA as of now, not all omega 3s. Remember that ALA is not used as well as EPA or DHA, so if you are eating more fish you may not need to consume this much.
|Grams/day Total Fat*
|Grams/day Saturated Fat*
|Grams/day Omega 6
High Fat Foods for Baby
Foods High in ALA (vegetarian friendly, but not as usable)
|Grams Fatty Acid
|Black Walnuts (serve ground or as nut butter)
|Mixed Nuts (serve ground or as nut butter)
|Edamame (mash for baby)
Foods High In EPA/DHA (more usable)
|Grams Fatty Acid
|Cod Liver Oil
Krystyn Parks is a Registered Dietitian and Lactation Consultant who specializes in feeding children. She has a Master’s Degree in Nutritional Science from California State University Long Beach. She is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and has been registered with the Commission on Dietetic Registration since 2013.