Feb. 4, 1998
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Butter can be more nutritious than low-fat yogurt. An egg is more nutritious than broccoli.
At least that's true for many infants and toddlers, and even children as old as 5 years, all of whom may need more fat in their diets than adults, two nutritionists say.
Bruce Watkins, professor of lipid chemistry and metabolism at Purdue University, and Bernhard Hennig, professor of cell nutrition at the University of Kentucky, say that children under age 5 -- especially infants -- are getting too little fat in their diets. They are suggesting new dietary recommendations for children as old as age 5 and changes in the makeup of infant formulas.
"The scientific community is focused in one direction, and that is reducing dietary fat in all individuals," Watkins says. "But trying to adapt fat recommendations from adults to infants and toddlers is not the best way."
Hennig agrees. "There's little information that restricting fat before 2 years of age could be beneficial, but there's plenty of evidence that this could be dangerous," he says. "One of the main reasons is that it may retard growth and development."
According to the researchers, restricted fat intake in children reduces growth and visual acuity and limits mental development. "For example, omega-3 fatty acids -- which come from fish and certain plant oils -- are crucial for brain development and for development of the retina," Watkins says.
The researchers conducted a scientific review of available information and concluded that dietary fat recommendations for adults have been inappropriately applied to children, who have a different physiology and different growth needs than adults. Their paper is published as a chapter in a new book, "Lipids in Infant Nutrition," which has just been released by the American Oil Chemists' Society.
Health organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Heart Association, and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, have made recommendations to limit dietary fat intake for individuals more than 2 years old. The federal government's 1995 Dietary Guidelines, produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, recommend that fat intake be restricted in children beginning at age 2.
Watkins and Hennig, however, suggest that we should not restrict fat until 5 years of age, and then reduce it gradually throughout childhood and teen years. They say that limiting dietary fat to less than 30 percent of total calories in young children may reduce growth and lead to nutritional shortages.
The relative low-fat nature of infant formula is a special concern for these researchers. "Certain fatty acids are found only in human milk. They are not found in sufficient amounts in infant formulas," Hennig says. "The companies that make the formula should mimic human milk as closely as possible. These companies are aware, at least, that this is important, and they are working on this."
Watkins agrees with Hennig: "We don't know the essential fatty acids that are needed for bone and cartilage development. For example, omega-3 fatty acids are found in breast milk, but are not in infant formulas in this country. We know that these fatty acids are important for normal growth development and appear to have an increasing role in preventing disease later in life."
In addition to the need for fat in early development, Hennig says there is a theory that offers another reason infants should have comparatively high-fat diets: These diets may lower their cholesterol when they become adults.
"Blood cholesterol can come from diet, or we can produce it in our bodies through internal synthesis," Hennig says. "There may be a reason that human mother's milk is very high in fat. There is a provocative theory that high fat content in breast milk may suppress the enzyme that causes the body to synthesize cholesterol early in life. The reason would be that if dietary fat is high enough, then the body would not need to produce more of its own. But if the fat isn't there early in life, the body begins producing excess cholesterol, and this may continue even later in life."
The researchers recognize that childhood obesity is an increasing and persistent problem in the United States, but they say that restricting fat intake isn't doing these children any favors. "It seems that children are very good at knowing how many calories they need in a day," Watkins says. "They are much better than adults at this. So let them decide how much to eat.
"Instead of restricting fat, we need to encourage physical activity in children. The problem is that kids today spend too much time in front of the television."
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