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Children's diet and the right types of fat

Here is the new dietary advice on which types of fat, and in which quantities, are best for your child.

Illustration of a girl with two icecones in her hand

Illustrasjonsfoto: Colourbox

We are more and more uncertain of which types of fat, and how much, should be part of our diet. The Norwegian Nutrition Council recently published an updated assessment of the dietary advice concerning fat. The conclusion is that consumption of saturated fat should be reduced and replaced with unsaturated fat.

The Norwegian Nutrition Council's report focuses on adults, and the fat recommendations for children are not as clearly specified. Researchers from the Department of Nutrition have taken a closer look at some key questions concerning fat and saturated fat in children's diets, with focus on the prevention of cardiovascular disease.

How much fat should children have in their diet?

As soon as a child starts to eat ordinary meals, parents can safely choose foods with a low content of saturated fat, and a higher content of unsaturated fat from vegetables and fish. This is especially important for children and adolescents, since dietary habits are established at an early stage. Saturated fat is found especially in animal products such as full-fat milk products and fatty meat.

"The recommendation concerning saturated fat is the same for children over the age of six months as for adults," says Inger Ottestad from the Department of Nutrition.

It is important to include fat in a child's diet, but young children do not need more saturated fat than adults.  Children's diet, just like adults' diet, should mostly include unsaturated fat.

What children can eat

A diet that is good for the hearts of children and young people is the same as a heart-healthy diet for adults: replace saturated with unsaturated fat. This applies from when the child starts to eat ordinary meals with the rest of the family; at between six months and two years of age.

Children should have a varied diet, with wholegrain products, fish, vegetables, fruit and berries, and limited amounts of processed meat, red meat, salt and sugar.

To ensure sufficient unsaturated fat in children's diet, they should eat:

  • Cooking oils, liquid margarine and soft margarine, and not hard margarine and butter
  • Low-fat dairy products in their everyday diet, i.e. low-fat varieties of milk, cheese and yoghurt
  • Lean meat and lean meat products 
  • Limited amounts of processed meat (sausages, meatballs, etc.) and red meat

A higher fibre intake from fruit, berries, vegetables and grain products also has a positive impact on LDL cholesterol. Children should therefore eat:

  • Wholegrain products every day and at several meals, and unsweetened cereals
  • At least five portions of vegetables, fruit and berries every day (five a day)

A higher intake of fish and a reduced intake of salt and sugar will contribute to normal body weight, blood pressure and blood counts. Children should therefore eat:

  • Fish at their evening meal two to three times a week, and preferably also fish-based sandwich toppings
  • Food with a low salt content, and limited salt added to food
  • Unsweetened food and beverages on an everyday basis

"The health benefits are far greater if a healthy diet is already established during childhood," says Jacob Juel Christensen, research fellow at the Department of Nutrition.

Atherosclerosis in children

Atherosclerosis is the underlying reason for cardiovascular disease. Atherosclerosis is a lifelong process during which cholesterol becomes attached to the inside of the arterial wall. This leads to an inflammation process and the formation of calcareous plaque in the arterial wall, causing the arteries to narrow.

"Post mortems show that the development of atherosclerosis begins early in life, and perhaps already in the womb," says Ingunn Narverud.

Cholesterol is a fat that the body's cells use for several vital processes. Cholesterol in the blood can be divided into "good" HDL cholesterol and "bad" LDL cholesterol. A high level of bad LDL cholesterol in the blood increases the risk of developing atherosclerosis. Reducing LDL cholesterol is therefore important to the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease. Cutting our intake of saturated fat will reduce LDL cholesterol.

Diet affects the cholesterol burden

The total amount of LDL cholesterol that we are exposed to in the course of our lives is called the cholesterol burden. Over many years, even small differences in LDL cholesterol will accumulate into large differences in cholesterol burden, and affect the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

"Dietary habits and lifestyle are established at an early stage, and follow you throughout your life," Ingunn Narverud adds.

Children and adolescents with a high content of saturated fat in their diet will have a higher level of LDL cholesterol in their blood. Over time, this will lead to significant differences in cholesterol burden and the risk of disease, compared to children and adolescents who establish dietary habits with a low content of saturated fat.

Photo of three scientists from the Departement of nutrtition
Young children do not need more saturated fat than adults, according to researchers from the Department of Nutrition. From left to right: Ingunn Narverud, Jacob Juel Christensen and Inger Ottestad. Photo: Åslaug Brynildsen, UiO

New report on fat

On Thursday, 4 May 2017, the report "Kostråd om fett – en oppdatering og vurdering av kunnskapsgrunnlaget" (Dietary guidelines on fats – an update and evaluation of the evidence basis) was presented by a working group under the Norwegian Nutrition Council. The report includes extensive documentation of the recommendations concerning fat in a normal diet.

The Norwegian Nutrition Council recommends that the population's intake of saturated fat should be lower than 10% of their energy intake, and that saturated fat should be replaced with unsaturated fat.

This conclusion is in good accordance with previous dietary recommendations: saturated fat should be replaced with unsaturated fat, especially polyunsaturated fat. This will reduce the "bad" LDL cholesterol in the blood, and thereby also the risk of cardiovascular disease.

By Åslaug Brynildsen
Published Aug. 7, 2017 10:23 AM - Last modified July 1, 2019 6:18 AM