Fact check: Do toddlers need saturated fat?

A nutritional factoid often passed around is that babies and young children need to eat a lot of saturated fats for normal growth and brain development. As a result of this many parents hesitate to pour a glass of reduced fat milk and children's recipe books overflow with recipes involving creams, cheeses and full fat meats.
So is it true?

The belief that saturated fat is required for normal growth appears to draw primarily on the experience of some children whose diet was not only low in saturated fat but also low on many necessary vitamins and minerals and energy deficient 1.  Several randomized control studies have shown no difference in the height and overall growth of children consuming lower levels of saturated fat to those consuming higher levels. 2,3,4.

Brain development
Due to the rapid development of the central nervous system early in life, early nutritional deficiencies such as those caused by severe malnutrition can cause lifelong effects on brain development. Cholesterol and a component of polyunsaturated fatty acids are required for normal brain development. However sufficient cholesterol is made by the body so polyunsaturated fatty acids are the only fat required to be consumed for healthy brain development. A study comparing various types of fat intake in children on a digit span test showed   lower scores  for children consuming lower levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids 5. However a randomized control trial found that children who were consuming lower levels of saturated fat actually consumed more PUFAs 6.  This study also tested the neurological outcomes of children who had consumed lower levels of saturated fat and cholesterol from birth and found that there was no difference between them and those who were consuming higher levels of saturated fat. Other studies have had similar findings 7  with one study actually finding negative cognitive results for children with high levels of cholesterol consumption 8

Why does it matter?
Death by cardiovascular disease is the end of a lifelong process. High levels of cholesterol and LDL-C in the blood have been associated with fatty streaks, plaques and lesions in childhood through to the end of adolescence gradually increasing with age 9,10. The more fatty lesions and other related damage that is present in the heart the more likely death from cardiovascular disease is 11. Furthermore high levels of fat consumption and resulting LDL-C blood levels tend to be sustained throughout life 12 meaning the damage to the heart will continue to escalate. Reducing the level of saturated fat from birth may diminish cardiovascular disease risk with no associated risk.


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