By Jane Sheppard
Pay little attention to the pervasive hype about low-fat diets. Children need fats in their diets to be healthy. Healthy fats supply nutrients that are essential for growth and are necessary for energy as well as the absorption and metabolism of some nutrients. Fats are vitally important to the brain, which is 70 percent fat. They are used for building the membranes around every cell in the body and also play a role in the formation of hormones. Cold-pressed olive and flaxseed oils, fish oils, seeds, nuts, eggs, avocados, grass-fed meats, and butter and whole, raw milk from grass-fed cows are good fat-containing foods.
When you limit your child’s fat intake, you may be depriving him or her of essential nutrients. Many low-fat diets are low in zinc and vitamin E. Zinc is essential to growth and proper functioning of the immune system, and vitamin E is an important antioxidant that can help protect against disease. Furthermore, when children are eating a low-fat diet, they typically eat more high sugar and starch carbohydrates, which can lead to blood sugar problems and decreased immunity.
The caution here is to make sure your children get the right fats and not the bad ones. The wrong types of fats – hydrogenated oils, high in trans fatty acids – can predispose a child to recurrent infections, inflammatory conditions, and learning disorders. Hydrogenated oils, such as margarine, are the prime culprits in heart disease and cancer. Hydrogenation is a manufacturing process that converts unsaturated fats into saturated fats to prolong shelf life. Read the labels of foods you buy in the grocery store. It’s difficult to find anything that does not contain these unhealthy fats. Hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils are found in margarine, shortening, commercial baked goods, fried chicken nuggets, fish sticks, french fries, and most other processed foods. Hydrogenation alters the fatty acids in the oil, which creates artificial fatty acids. It makes perfectly good oils act as poison to the body by interfering with the metabolism of essential fatty acids. Leo Galland, MD, author of Superimmunity for Kids, What to Feed Your Kids to Keep Them Healthy Now – and Prevent Disease in Their Future (Dell 1988) states “These artificial fatty acids are not only unnatural and unnecessary, they can have a disastrous effect on your child’s body’s ability to use EFAs.”
Essential fatty acids (EFAs – the good fats) are essential to normal immune and nervous system function. You cannot have a healthy immune system or brain without these fats. EFAs are called essential because we need them to be healthy and our bodies can’t make them. They must be supplied by the diet. There are numerous health problems associated with EFA deficiencies. These include susceptibility to infections, arthritis-like conditions, asthma, eczema, hair loss, liver or kidney degeneration, growth retardation and vision or learning problems.
There are two kinds of EFAs: omega-6 is found in evening primrose oil, borage oil, black currant oil, safflower, sunflower, corn, soybean, and cottonseed oils. The other is omega-3. Flaxseeds and cod-liver oil are rich in omega-3 EFAs. Walnuts also contain significant amounts, as well as freshly ground wheat germ. Certain fish, including salmon, tuna, mackerel, bluefish, sardines and herring, are rich in omega-3 EFAs. Dried beans, such as great northern, kidney, navy and soybeans, contain small amounts of both omega-6 and omega-3 EFAs.
The balance of omega-3 to omega-6 EFAs is important. An excess of omega-6 fats (polyunsaturated, commercial vegetable oils) can create a fatty acid imbalance that can contribute to many health problems, including inflammation, depressed immune system function, cancer, heart disease, liver damage, learning disabilities, and weight gain. The key is to balance small amounts of these oils with the omega-3 fatty acids that most children are deficient in. Breastmilk contains the perfect balance of essential fatty acids, as long as the mother is getting enough essential fats in her diet.
Providing EFAs to Your Children
Your child’s need for EFAs depends on what else he or she is eating. If your child is eating a lot of hydrogenated oils or trans fatty acids (fast foods, commercial cakes, cookies, crackers, and other junk foods) or doesn’t get enough of certain essential vitamins and minerals, her body may not be able to make proper use of the EFAs she is getting. EFAs must be metabolized effectively in order for the body to reap their benefits. It’s not enough to just get adequate EFAs. Certain co-factor vitamins and minerals must also be present. Vitamins B-6, A, C, E, magnesium, zinc, copper, and selenium must be there to make the metabolism of EFAs possible.
Sometimes it’s hard to get your children to eat enough EFA-containing foods. Cod-liver oil or fish oil is a practical ways to supply EFAs to children. Years ago, mothers gave their children a small daily dose of cod-liver oil to prevent disease. This was a good immune building practice. Cod-liver oil is a good source of omega 3 EFAs with the added benefits of fat-soluble vitamins A and D. Cod-liver oil is rich in a fatty acid called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which is very important for the proper function of the brain and nervous system. Defatted cod-liver oil removes the nutritional value so make sure it contains the fat.
According to Randall Neustaedter, OMD, author of Child Health Guide: Holistic Pediatrics for Parents, “the best sources of omega-3 fats are cod liver oil (1 tspn per 50 lbs of body weight), fish oil capsules (containing 250 mg of DHA for children over 7 years old), and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) supplements derived from algae (Neuromins).” He also mentions that there is a problem with flax seed oil for omega-3 supplementation. “Flax seeds contains the omega-3 fatty acid ALA that must be converted to DHA by an enzyme so that the body can incorporate it into cells. The problem is that children make this enzyme only in small amounts, if at all. If they do not have the enzyme they will not benefit from the omega-3 fat in flax seeds.”