Food | Child Health + Development | Nutrition

Will That Avocado Make My Kid Smart? Feeding Kids Fats as Brain Food

avocadoFat: A bad word, right?

We've been trained from an early age to avoid fat, concerned that it will make us overweight, lead to heart disease or create other health problems. Even the word "fat" makes some people panic or recoil.

But all living creatures need fats. They are necessary for good health — and the right fats can build a better brain.

The fats you feed children as they grow could expand or limit their intelligence. This is because the brain is 60% to 70% fat, and the right raw materials from food are critical to building a complex, highly functioning brain.

The very structure of the brain itself — both the brain cells and the communication mechanisms between brain cells — are built from fat. If the right fats are not supplied at critical stages of development, brain structure is altered, impeding the brain’s ability to function.

“Fats are built into the structure of your child’s brain. The right balance of fats influence how intelligent your child becomes later in life. Without the right building blocks — including healthy sources of saturated fats and essential fatty acids like Omega 3s and DHA — your child won’t reach their full potential. Fats are that important,” according to John Tjenos, Seattle Nutritional Therapy practitioner and lead instructor for the Nutritional Therapy Association.

That said, the brain is very particular about the kind of fat used in its construction. Highly processed fats, like trans-fat and hydrogenated oils, are not what you want to feed your child.

“Fat is a structural nutrient that is literally incorporated into the brain the way a brick is incorporated into a wall. Good bricks make for better walls," according to Kelly Dorfman, pediatric nutritionist and author of What’s Eating Your Child. "If you want smooth thinking, fast processing and good mood, you will want the best raw materials.” 

Optimal communication between cells is dependent upon the quality of the fats provided.

“These fats make up 70% of the myelin sheath which surround the brain neurons and allow them to make new connections. Here’s the math: More connections equal ideas, memory, feelings, intelligence and physical coordination,” explains Tjenos.

“A lack of necessary dietary fats, especially saturated fats, can impair the fatty tissues which coat the brain’s wiring, causing uncontrolled or rapid fire impulses in the brain, which presents as ADD or ADHD. If a child’s diet doesn’t contain these fats, brain tissue doesn’t form or it forms incorrectly.”

If the wrong fats are available, children’s bodies will use them to build and operate the brain instead.

“The results you get are similar to using inferior materials to build your house. Our builder used interior-grade plywood to frame our windows outside so they rotted and leaked,” Dorfman said.

What are the optimal fats for brain development?  Your child needs DHA (Omega 3s), saturated fats, found in fatty fish and grass-fed meat, and cholesterol. 

Here is a quick cheat sheet:

olive oilBest fats for hot uses:

  • Coconut
  • Palm
  • Butter
  • Eggs, meat, & seafood

Best fats for cold uses:

  • Olive oil
  • Sesame oil
  • Butter
  • Nut oils (walnut, pecan, macadamia)
  • Flax seed oil
  • Nuts & seeds (including butters)
  • Fish oil
  • Cod liver oil
  • Avocado

Fats and oils to avoid:

  • Hydogenated or partially hydrogenated oils
  • Margarine
  • Trans fats
  • Canola oil
  • Safflower oil
  • Sunflower oil
  • Vegetable oil

Source: Guide to Fats and Oils chart and John P. Tjenos.

Jodi Cohen is a Seattle-based Nutritional Therapist. She enjoys running, yoga, writing and time spent with her two young children. To learn more visit her at Vibrant Roots.

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