Infant Articles

The Importance Of Healthy Fats

By Sue Gilbert, MS, Nutritionist

 

Limiting fat in your baby's diet is like trying to fool Mother Nature, and it doesn't work. There is no evidence that limiting fat in baby's diet reduces their risk of cardiovascular disease later in life or even aids in weight control. Paradoxically, a child who gains too little weight in childhood is at greater risk of becoming an overweight adult because the caloric deficit metabolically programs their body to be more efficient in storing calories. If a baby's diet is chronically too low in fat it can lead to a condition known as Failure to Thrive, where baby gains too little weight, falls off the growth curve and begin to miss developmental milestones. Babies getting diets too low in fat and too low in essential fatty acids may suffer from visual problems and mental delays.

 

Mother Nature designed breast milk to contain 50% fat. Traditionally, babies were nursed for a whole year and had a diet rich in fat until their first birthday. But now, breast-feeding doesn't always last for 12 months, and solid foods play a larger role in an infant's diet. But, with the fear of fat well ingrained in most parents, some are, with all the best intentions, mistakenly restricting the fat in their baby's diet by limiting the fat in those solid foods. Mother nature designed a baby's diet to be rich in fats for as long as a year and we should try to replicate her plan as much as possible.

 

A couple of reasons for baby's high fat requirements during their first several months of life:

  • Caloric Density: fat supplies more calories than either protein or carbohydrates. Babies grow rapidly and need a large amount of calories in proportion to their body size. Getting all the calories a baby needs without fat would be almost impossible, simply because their tummies can't hold that much food.
  • Essential Fatty Acids: your body can't manufacture essential fatty acids so we get them from food. Fatty acids help a baby's brain grow develop properly. The brain is 60% fat, and much of that fat is made from essential fatty acids. Essential fatty acids also help the retina of the eye develop. Optimum visual acuity is dependent upon getting enough of them during the period of visual development, particularly the few months before and after birth.
  • The mixture of fats in breast milk is highly sophisticated, complex and dynamic and it's very hard to replicate a formula or food to match it. The nutritional content of mother's milk is constantly changing minute by minute. The hind milk is different than the fore milk, the breast milk of a mom with a prematurely born infant is different than that of a mom whose baby is full term.

 

The breast milk of a vegetarian is different than that of a mom who consumes an omnivorous diet. A nursing mom who eats fish will have more of some types of fats than a nursing mom who does not. Due to these large variations in breast milk, it's hard to determine the best diet for an infant.

 

Several of the current suggestions and infant feeding guidelines center around these averages:

  • A high fat diet supplies adequate amounts of essential fatty acids
  • A full year of a fat rich diet is best

 

So when you begin to wean from breast or bottle to table foods, keep a high level of fat in your baby's diet. While adding fruits and vegetables during the first year is a good idea and helps to develop a taste preference for those foods, remember you also need to include some fat rich foods too, like egg yolks, whole milk, meats, fish, and vegetable oils. Some butter and milk mixed into baby's mashed potatoes is fine. Adding cream to the mashed peas, or egg yolks into their cereal is a way to ensure they get the calories and essential fats that they need.

 

When to reduce the fat

The time to begin the switch to a lower fat diets begins around a child's 2nd birthday, when you can begin the gradual change to lower fat dairy products, leaner meats, and fewer high fat foods. Until then, realize that your baby is unique from adults when it comes to nutritional needs and in particular, their need for fat.