Why You Want Your Baby to Be Fat (No, Seriously)

Health & Wellness on 03.25.11
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As Marla's post on new moms in bikinis showed,  we are constantly conditioned to watch our weight - and to watch other people's weight too. (Each time Jessica Simpson puts on a pound or two, we're bound to hear about it on Facebook.) So it can be hard - as parents - to recondition ourselves when it comes to our child's fat intake. But the fact is that our children - and babies in particular - need fat to develop properly. So when I discovered my own daughter Lilia was dropping in weight-for-age percentiles at 15 months, I must admit I was worried.

Why Fats Matter

There is so much hype about childhood obesity that it has scared some parents into resticting fat alltogether. Although the childhood obesity epidemic is very real, it is crucial that our kids receive the appropriate amount of fat. The fat we need as adults is very different from the amount of fats babies and toddlers need for growth and brain development. Fat provides energy and sustains hunger and promotes wound healing. Enough fat also gives flavor to food and will encourage your kid to eat a variety of foods (even veggies!).

Linoleic and alpha-lenolenic acids are not made in the body, so they must be provided though foods. Also, Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble and need fatty foods to be absorbed by the body.If you provide meals and snacks that provide low, moderate, and high amounts of fat your child can choose what and how much to eat depending on hunger levels and needs. As a parent, we know it's sometimes hard to relinquish control, but kids are great at regulating food needs and will eat more or less depending on what they need. It's important that we trust them.

Operation Fat Baby

As a registered dietitian and obsessive baby-food maker, I was well aware that my kid needed as much as 40-50 % of her food calories to come from fat at least until age 2 and then slowly reduce fats to about 1/3 of total calories around age 5 or 6. I made sure she had plenty of whole-milk products, fatty fish and eggs, avocados and other healthy fats and oils. Even then, at her 15-month pediatrician appointment, we discovered that she dropped from the 75th percentile at 9 months to the 10th percentile.  I knew some decrease in weight is very normal at this age, and that the fat in breast milk also decreases over time, but I have to admit that dramatic increase through me for a loop. That is when "operation fat baby" began.

My first step was to cut back on nursing a little. Lilia was a bit of a breastmilk grazer which was making her less hungry at meal time. I also needed to make sure that each of her meals and snacks had a good amount of fat included. It's early days yet, but so far "operation fat baby" has helped to increase Lilia's weight by 3lbs in 2 months, which is about normal at this age, and over time I am confident she will increase weight-for-age percentiles.

How to Add Healthy Fats

I had already learned from experience that we couln't dictate what Lilia eats - but rather offer a variety of healthy fats that Lilia could pick and choose from to help regulate her weight. I also knew it was important for my husband and I to limit saturated fats (even though my husband is religiously pro-butter, he knows he wants his heart to continue beating). Here are a few ideas to add fats to your baby, toddler, and pre-schoolers foods:

  • When offering a lower fat menu option for dinner make sure to allow your child unlimited access to high-fat spreads, sauces, and salad dressings.
  • Occasionally fry meat, fish, and other foods.
  • Add sour cream, whole-milk yogurt, butter, and cheese to casseroles.
  • Add extra eggs when baking
  • Add powdered milk to soups, sauces, casseroles, potatoes, and milk.
  • Offer avocados, peanut butter, whole-milk yogurt, and other high-fat foods as snacks.
  • Add gravies, sauces, and butter to veggies, pasta, and rice.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Make sure not to go to any extremes with adding fat to your child's diet. Childhood obesity is real and pushing or forcing kids to eat fats will backfire in the end.Your young child should be getting the majority of their calories from nutrient dense foods and not empty calorie foods such as sweetend-beverages, fast-foods, and processed foods laden with high-sodium and trans fats. As I mentioned in my post 10 Guidelines for Raising a Healthy, Happy Eater, if you are concerned about your child's diet, weight, or fat intake check in with your family doctor or a registered dietitian.

With Lilia gaining weight at a healthy pace, my concerns about fat intake have eased somewhat. But as a family, we still work hard to ensure that plenty of healthy, nutritious (and hopefully tasty!) fats are on our plates regularly. Avocados, olive oil, butter and cheese all feature heavily in family meals. As with most things in parenting (and life), it's all a case of moderation - but (when it comes to fat at least) what moderation means for babies, and what it means for adults, are two different things.

More on Nutrition and Diet for Babies and Toddlers

When It Comes to Feeding Fussy Eaters, Be a Collaborator Not a Dictator
10 Guidelines for Raising a Healthy Happy Eater
Teaching My Kids Healthy Eating Habits (Even Though Mine Always Sucked)