As with carbohydrates in recent years, fats have been wrongly accused of being "bad." Too much fat can be a bad thing, but certain kinds of fat are actually good for us and are an important part of a healthy diet.

About Fat

Fats are nutrients in food that the body uses to build nerve tissue (including the brain and nerves) and hormones. The body also uses fat as fuel. If fats eaten aren't burned as energy or used as building blocks, they're stored by the body in fat cells. This is the body's way of thinking ahead: By saving fat for future use, the body plans for times when food might be scarce.

Fat gives food flavor and texture, but it's also high in calories and excess amounts of fatty foods can cause many health problems.

For kids and teens, desserts and snacks (including potato chips, chocolate, cakes, doughnuts, pastries, and cookies) are a significant source of fat. Kids also get fat from whole-milk products and high-fat meats, such as bacon, hot dogs, and fatter cuts of red meat.

Of course, fast-food and takeout meals tend to have more fat than home cooking; and in restaurants, fried dishes are the highest in fat content. Fat also often "hides" in foods in the form of creamy, cheesy, or buttery sauces or dressings.

However, fat is still an important part of a healthy diet if kids eat healthier types of fat at the recommended daily amounts.

Why Some Fats Are Healthy

Getting enough healthy fats is essential for growth and development. Young kids, in particular, need enough of them in their diet to help the brain and nervous system develop normally.

Besides supplying fuel for the body, fats:

  • help the body absorb some vitamins (vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat soluble, meaning they can only be absorbed if there's fat in a person's diet)
  • are the building blocks of hormones
  • are needed to insulate all nervous system tissues in the body
  • help people feel full, so they're less likely to overeat

Fat is a great source of energy but has twice the amount of calories as carbohydrates or protein.

Types of Fats

To help you figure out fats, here's a look at the three major types:

1. Unsaturated fats: Found in plant foods and fish, these fats are seen as neutral or even beneficial to heart health. The types of unsaturated fats are:

  • monounsaturated, found in avocados and olive, peanut, and canola oils
  • polyunsaturated, found in most vegetable oils
  • omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat found in oily fish like tuna and salmon

2. Saturated fats: Found in meat and other animal products, such as butter, shortening, lard, cheese, and milk (except skim or nonfat), saturated fats are also in palm and coconut oils, which are often used in commercial baked goods. Eating too much saturated fat can raise blood cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease.

3. Trans fats: Found in margarine (especially the sticks), commercial snack foods and baked goods, and some commercially fried foods, trans fats (also called trans fatty acids) are created when vegetable oils are hydrogenated (meaning that hydrogen atoms are added to the fat molecule so they remain solid at room temperature).

Like saturated fats, trans fats can raise cholesterol and increase the risk of heart disease. Food manufacturers must list trans fats on food labels, but may also refer to them as "partially hydrogenated" oils on the ingredient list.

How Much Fat Should Kids Get?

Although some people may think it's wise to try to cut fat altogether or excessively limit it, it's crucial for fat to stay a part of a child's diet.

For young kids, especially, fat and cholesterol play important roles in brain development. And for those under 2 years old, fat should not be restricted. Children ages 1 to 3 years should eat a varied diet with about 30% to 35% of calories coming from fat. For ages 4 to 18 years, the recommendations are about 25% to 35% of calories.

Fit Fats and Your Family

Although eating adequate amounts of fat is an important part of a healthy diet, it is true that many kids today do eat too much of it. And excess fat might lead to weight gain. Kids who carry excess weight into adulthood have greater risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

Here are some ways to keep fat intake within the recommended ranges:

  • Serve naturally low-fat foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and fish, as well as low-fat dairy products.
  • Choose healthier, unsaturated fats when cooking and reduce the amount you use.
  • When cooking meat, fish, or poultry, opt for broiling, grilling, or roasting (on a rack). These methods allow the fat to drip away during cooking, which cuts down on calories, too. Frying, on the other hand, adds fat. Remove skin from poultry.
  • Beware of reduced-fat and low-fat claims. These products often have more sugar added and just as many calories.
  • Pack school lunches and meals for family outings instead of going to fast-food restaurants or relying on your kids to make healthy choices in the school cafeteria.
  • When dining out, help kids make balanced choices that don't include large amounts of fat.

The most effective way to teach kids healthy eating habits is to set a good example yourself. Make nutritious food a priority in your life by teaching your kids how to prepare healthy meals and snacks. Making sensible eating a habit, choosing foods wisely, and exercising regularly are the keys to a healthy lifestyle.