When my daughter was born, I obsessed over what she needed in terms of macros for proper development. I started researching requirements and trying to figure out how I was going to measure and monitor her intake. Fast forward a few years, and I have chilled WAY out about this, but that’s only because I got a good handle on what was needed, and what foods support those needs best.
During this research, I learned a lot about how important fat is for brain development. Did you know the human brain is 60% FAT? Yeah, fat is a big deal for our littles. Most of the primary development of the brain occurs in your child’s first 5 to 6 years, although brain maturation continues into the early 20’s. This means that getting a good balance of dietary fats is critical for young children. In fact, 30-40% of their calories should be derived from fat until the age of 4.
Different types of fatty acids are needed for certain brain functions. The most helpful fats are known as omega-3 fatty acids; these are involved in maturation of specific brain areas, synthesis of neurotransmitters in the brain, and creation of the myelin sheath that makes neurons send messages more quickly. As a result, getting enough omega-3 fatty acids boost brain development and may have long-term consequences for your child’s cognitive functioning. Also, certain vitamins in food, such as Vitamin A, D, E and K, need fat for absorption since they are fat-soluble.
The skinny on fats:
First, it is important to stress that not all fats are created equal. There are three major categories of fats: saturated, trans, and unsaturated fats. Saturated fats, found in high concentrations in red meat, butter, and cheese, are associated with higher risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Trans fats, which mostly come from partially hydrogenated oils (often found in packaged crackers, chips, and baked goods), also elevate levels of “bad” cholesterol and contribute to poor cardiovascular health.
However, unsaturated fats are known as “healthy fats.” Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (PUFA’s) help protect the heart and research also suggests that these healthy fats may be critical for brain development.
Of course, it is always possible to get too much of a good thing. Remember that although unsaturated fats are healthy for your child, each gram of fat contains 9 calories, more than twice that of carbohydrates and protein. This means that eating high-fat foods — even those that are high in healthy unsaturated fats — increases your child’s total caloric intake. Like everything else, moderation is key! Be sure to offer fats as part of a balanced diet that includes whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and low-fat dairy products.
Dietary Sources of Fat
The body can make small amounts of unsaturated fats but is unable to create omega-3 fatty acids which means they must be sourced by diet. A balanced diet needs to include healthy fats, so here are some great options to consider:
Monounsaturated fats can be found in oils such as peanut, canola, and olive, as well as nuts, such as hazelnuts, almonds, pecans, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds. Our personal favorite, avocados, are an excellent source as well.
Polyunsaturated fats, including healthful omega-3 fatty acids, may be found in other oils such as sunflower, corn, soybean and flaxseed. Walnuts and fish also provide a good supply of this type of fat.
Other excellent choices include eggs, olives, edamame, seeds, full fat milk and yogurt (keep an eye on the dairy, some brands have excess sugar, and they do include some amount of saturated fat).
We focus on the macro balance for your meals, therefore we think about fat a lot! Our Tiny Bite meals are specifically designed to include a higher ratio of fat to support that early year brain development. Of course, we must manage to limitations such as nut-free meals, as well as foods that will keep fresh, and are delicious cold. The good news is, there are still lots of options. Many of our meals include boiled eggs, along with oils in baked good and pasta dishes, olives in some of our pastas, edamame, and even a few options with sun-butter. We also like to include some full-fat yogurts, and a little cheese for both flavor and calcium and fat.