Fats and Oils for Children’s Health

Randall Neustaedter OMD

Excerpt from Child Health Guide: Holistic Pediatrics for Parents, North Atlantic Books, 2005

Children need fats. Low-fat foods can create fatty-acid deficiencies. Children especially need saturated fats and cholesterol to maintain healthy tissues and healthy cell membranes. Cholesterol and saturated fats from breast milk, organic eggs, cream, coconut oil, and meats are essential parts of your child’s diet.

Children also need omega-3 fats for brain development. Breast milk contains the omega-3 fat DHA for this reason. Most children and adults eat too many polyunsaturated fats in the form of vegetable oils (omega-6 fats). Children get all the omega-6 essential oils they need from breast milk, grains, seeds, vegetables, and nuts. They should eat as little additional polyunsaturated oils in the form of vegetable oils as possible (corn oil, canola oil, safflower oil, etc.). A diet high in polyunsaturated oils impairs growth and learning, and promotes heart disease, cancer, and immune system dysfunction. This process arises when polyunsaturated oils become oxidized after exposure to heat, oxygen, and moisture in processing and cooking. They release free radicals that attack cells membranes and damage DNA, initiating cellular and tissue damage that can promote tumor growth and inflammation of blood vessels with plaque formation (Fallon, 2001).

Saturated fats are necessary for calcium to be effectively incorporated into bones. At least 50 percent of dietary fat should be saturated (Watkins, 1996). Omega-3 fats are retained better in tissues in the presence of saturated fats, and saturated fats promote healthy immune systems because of their antimicrobial properties that prevent the buildup of harmful microorganisms in the digestive tract. Saturated fats do not cause heart disease, they prevent heart disease and cancer.

Cholesterol acts as a precursor to vital hormones including sex hormones and corticosteroids that protect the body against heart disease and cancer. Cholesterol is also a precursor of vitamin D that is essential to bone growth. Babies and children need cholesterol-rich foods to ensure proper development of the brain and nervous system (Fallon, 2001). Breast milk is especially rich in cholesterol.

Trans fats damage cell membranes, block the utilization of essential fatty acids, and promote disease (diabetes, heart disease, immune system dysfunction). Trans fats must be artificially manufactured. Polunsaturated fats are mixed with a metal (nickel oxide) and subjected to hydrogen in a high-pressure, high-temperature reactor. The hydrogen is forced to move in the fatty acid chain creating an altered molecular structure. The normal cis structure of the oil is converted to its trans formation when the hydrogen atoms is forced to the other side of the chain. This straightens the molecule allowing the molecules to pack together more closely forming a solid that mimics saturated fats. The result is a partially hydrogenated oil, margarine, or shortening. Manufacturers of packaged foods love partially hydrogenated fat because it keeps products fresh and oily tasting. You will find it in most packages down the center aisles of the supermarket, in chips, crackers, cakes, croissants, and cookies. Trans fats will sit in cell membranes, creating a barrier that blocks the exchange of health promoting nutrients and chemicals necessary for efficient function of the cell. Trans fats prevent normal cell metabolism because cells can only function normally when the electrons in cell membanes are in certain arrangements or patterns. This arrangement has been fatally altered by hydrogenation.

Fried foods are unhealthy because extreme heat damages fats. The damaged polyunsaturated oil and cholesterol release free radicals into the body that will in turn damage tissues and cells and promote disease processes. In addition, many fried foods are cooked with hydrogenated fats. Children should avoid commercial french fries, potato chips, and corn chips. These are not health-promoting foods.

Another problem with fried foods is the presence of a class of carcinogens called acrylamides. These are formed when starchy carbohydrates like potatoes, corn, oats, or wheat are subjected to high temperatures (above 360 degrees) for prolonged periods, as in deep-frying. French fries, potato chips, doughnuts, and even oven-baked french fries contain acrylamide. This chemical is monitored in drinking water because of its ability to cause cancer.

By contrast omega-3 fats have health-promoting and far-reaching preventive health effects. They create a flexible and permeable cell membrane that allows nutrients to pass easily into the cell. Omega-3 fats may be the key to prevention of heart disease, cancer, and arthritis, and the best thing going for allergies, asthma, and healthy brain functions.

Pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers should take a DHA-containing omega-3 supplement to ensure adequate levels of DHA in breast milk and adequate brain development in their babies. The DHA content of most American women is lower that that in milk from women in most other countries, and the DHA content of a woman’s breast milk correlates with her dietary intake of DHA. Vegetarian women have the lowest levels of DHA in their breastmilk (Fidler, 2000). When women supplement their diets with DHA in the form of fish oil, high-DHA eggs, or a DHA-containing algae capsule the content of DHA in their breast milk increases. The increase in breast milk DHA also translates into higher DHA levels in infants (Jensen, 2000). In another study, infants whose mothers took fish oil supplements during pregnancy also had higher blood levels of DHA at birth than a control group that did not take a supplement (Connor, 1996).

It is difficult for children to get enough omega-3 fats from their diets once they are no longer breastfeeding. Children need to have supplements of omega-3 fats. 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). Chickens, eggs, and beef are also sources of omega-3 fats if the animals eat green plants and not just grains. Therefore, only cage free chickens that eat green plants or algae and pasture-fed cattle are reliable sources. Small fish (achovies, herring, and sardines) are another good source of omega-3 fats, but larger fish (tuna, shark, swordfish, mackerel, and salmon) may be contaminated with mercury and harmful pesticides. Children should not eat these larger ocean fish or farmed fish (See page X).

DHA Supplementation

Pregnant/breastfeeding Women

1 Tbspn cod liver oil per 150 lbs body weight


¼ tspn cod liver oil per 12 lbs (5.5 kg) body weight

Children >3 years old

1 tspn cod liver oil per 50 lbs body weight or 200 mg DHA from algae (Neuromins capsule) or 200 mg DHA from fish oil capsule

Flax seed oil is often recommended as an omega-3 supplement for children, but there is a problem. 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. Newborns are completely unable to convert ALA to DHA. A study of breastfeeding mothers who took a flaxseed oil supplement had no resulting increase in their own plasma or breast milk levels of DHA, showing that adults do not make this conversion either (Francois, 2003). Flaxseeds are not an adequate source of DHA.

The only oils suitable for use at home are olive oil for salads and marinades (monunsaturated fat) and coconut oil for cooking (saturated fat). Olive oil will not cause any health problems, but it does not contain either of the two essential fatty acids LA or ALA. Coconut oil contains health-promoting lauric acid, which helps prevent infection and aids in the prevention of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

Vitamin E is a potent antioxidant that is also absorbed into cell membranes where it will prevent rancidity of fats that reside in the cell. In addition, vitamin E has anti-inflammatory effects and increases resistance to infection. Use only natural vitamin E (d-alpha-tocopherol), not the synthetic form (dl-alpha-tocopherol). A mixed tocopherol form of vitamin E is best. The dose for children 1-3 years old 100 IU, for 4-12 year-olds 200 IU, and for teens 400 IU.

Healthy fats for children (from organic sources)

Whole dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese)
Coconut oil for cooking
Extra virgin olive oil for salads

Fats to avoid

Partially hydrogenated oils (in chips, cookies, crackers, cakes)
Vegetable oils (polyunsaturated)
Fried foods

Sources of Fatty Acids

Omega-6 fats

Canola oil
Safflower oil
Sunflower oil
Corn oil

Omega-3 fats

Flax seed
Eggs (cage free)

Omega-9 fats


Fatty Acids by Category

Omega-6 fatty acids

LA Linoleic acid
GLA Gamma linolenic acid
AA Arachidonic acid

Omega-3 fatty acids

ALA Alpha linolenic acid
EPA Eicosapentaenoic acid
DHA Docosahexaenoic acid

Omega-9 fatty acids

Oleic acid


  1. The oil is very important source for the food and also for the health. For childrens health is very important thing. they should be very strong by eating the natural and beneficial oil.That gives great energy for whole day.

  2. Thank you for this wonderfully written article!! It is the best one I have found with explanation on fats/oils and how to cook with them.

  3. Hi
    Could you please advise sources of Omega 3 EPA and DHA for Vegetarian Kid (Not vegan, No fish, No Eggs and No Meat)

        1. My son is 11 and weighs 150 lbs he lost weigh down to 139 then gained it back. Do you think safflower oil caplets would help him? He also has allergic asthma and breathing troubles due to weight. He has cut back most fatty snacks and sodas as well.

          1. Safflower oil is mostly omega 6 and likely to be harmful rather than helpful. He needs good fats as mentioned in the article.

  4. Hi, I came across your article while researching about flax oil. My 3yo has been having anal fissure and holding in his poop out of fear and therefore constipated. I want to try giving him flax oil to help ease the process, but not sure how much I should give him. Also, I’ve been adding ground flax seeds in his meals, should I continue doing that as ground flax seeds is a good source of fiber? Please advice. Thank you.

    1. Hi Sheilla, 1-2 tablespoon of ground flax seeds a day is a good source of fiber. Flax seeds should be stored in a dark container in the refrigerator. It’s important to get to the cause of the constipation and I’m happy to talk with you about that, along with other suggestions that can help with constipation. If you’d like to talk, click on Schedule Your Call at this link



    1. Avocados are an excellent source of healthy fats; however there are not enough omega 3s specifically in avocados if you are deficient in omega 3. Yes, avocados are healthy and you may still need a good source of omega 3s.

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