How much fat can children have in their diet?

Sliced avocado on a cutting board

Contrary to popular belief, fat is an important component of a healthy diet, especially for kids. Fats are needed for the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K and provide a valuable source of energy. Fat components are also important building blocks of all cells in the body.1 Not all fats are created equal however, and the type and quantity of fats ingested can affect your health. The types of fats found in food can be classified into four groups which are:

  • Saturated fat – Saturated fats are found in everyday healthy foods such as meat and dairy as well as takeaway "fast" foods and commercial products such as biscuits and pastries. Too much saturated fat may raise your body's level of "bad" cholesterol.2
  • Monounsaturated fat – The main type of monounsaturated fat is oleic acid or omega 9, which can be found in olive, canola and peanut oils.3 This type of fat can be produced in your body and is therefore not technically required in the diet, although it does have positive effects on health.
  • Polyunsaturated fat – Polyunsaturated fats include omega 3 and omega 6. These cannot be produced in your body therefore must come from the food you eat. These fats are important structural components of cell membranes and are necessary for healthy growing bodies. For instance, omega 3 is required for normal growth and development, and supports normal brain function in kids. Omega 6 rich foods can be found in vegetable oils such as sunflower and safflower, and omega 3 can be found in oily fish, walnuts and flaxseeds.3
  • Trans fat – Trans fats are the most damaging to health when consumed on a regular basis. Small amounts of trans fat can be found in milk, cheese, beef and lamb. It can also be created in the manufacturing of baked goods such as pies, pastries, cakes, biscuits and buns2 and is found in some margarine. Trans fats produced during manufacturing processes are the ones that you should be most concerned about, not the small amounts naturally found in healthy foods like lean meats and dairy.2

How much fat does my child need every day?

Recommendations for "total fat" intake in children have not been set. Focus has instead been placed on the types of fats chosen. The Australian dietary guidelines advise everyone to limit intake of foods high in saturated fats such as many types of biscuits, cakes, pastries, pies, processed meats, commercial burgers and pizza, fried food, potato chips, crisps and other savoury snacks.2 It's also advocated that we replace foods high in saturated fat with healthier polyunsaturated fats where possible.

The daily recommended intake for polyunsaturated fats including omega 3 and 6, are as follows:3

Age Linoleic Acid omega 6) Alpha linoleic acid (type of omega 3 from plant sources EPA, DHA and DPA (types of omega 3 found in oily fish
1-3 yrs 5 g/day 0.5 g/day 40 mg/day
4-8 yrs 8 g/day 0.8 g/day 55 mg/day
9-13 yrs (boys) 10 g/day 1 g/day 70 mg/day
14-18 yrs (boys) 12 g/day 1.2 g/day 125 mg/day
9-13 yrs (girls) 8 g/day 0.8 g/day 70 mg/day
14-18 yrs (girls) 8 g/day 0.8 g/day 85 mg/day

How can I ensure my children have the fats they need?

Tips to help your children consume the right types of fats for their active growing bodies include:

  • Encourage the consumption of lean cuts of meat, ensuring any visible fat is trimmed off meat and the skin is removed from chicken
  • Limit the intake of take-away foods and store-bought biscuits, pastries, pies, pizza and processed meats
  • Use avocado as a sandwich spread in place of butter and margarine
  • Serve up oily fish such as salmon, sardines, tuna, mackerel and anchovies around twice a week
  • Snack on unsalted nuts and seeds including walnuts, almonds, macadamias, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds
  • Add omega 3-containing chia seeds to your child's breakfast or flaxseed meal to their smoothies
  • Use a variety of vegetable, seed and nut oils when preparing food. Extra virgin olive oil, macadamia oil and sunflower oil are good choices. There is also evidence that virgin coconut oil is a good type of saturated fat and may be beneficial in moderation when baking or sauteing at medium heat
  • Consider an omega 3 supplement to help top up your kids daily intake