Smart, Happy Children Eat Fat!
As a psychotherapist and nutritionist, one of the most exciting areas in nutritional research to me is the study of the effect of food on our thoughts, emotions, and behavior. And fat plays a key role in this. Remember the adage, fish is brain food? The reason is, fish contains specific types of fatty acids critical for brain function and not found in other food sources. By brain function I’m talking about several things that affect your moment-to-moment well-being. Things such as the brain’s ability to:
- manufacture chemicals that regulate moods
- process information and thoughts
- focus and concentrate
- appropriately control behavior
- direct all physical functions of the body at the cellular, organ and muscular levels
The brain is composed of 60% fat, fat that comes from your diet. What do you imagine happens to brain function if you strip most fat from your or your child’s diet, or use predominately unhealthy fat sources? The prevalence of attention problems and depression in kids is directly related to the lack of healthy fat in the diet, compounded by the abundance of fake, processed fat and manufactured food.
It’s critical that children and teens, whose brains and nervous systems are developing, get adequate amounts of healthy fat—the operative word being ‘healthy.’ In a nutshell, that means fats that are not hydrogenated, oxidized, or composed primarily of Omega 6 fatty acids. Let’s look at each of these separately.
Hydrogenated fats are found in margarine, commercial baked goods, microwave popcorn, salad dressings, non-dairy creamer, and many other manufactured foods. These are chemically manipulated molecules that don’t behave in your body as food and are believed to alter the way the brain functions. They are also known to increase risks for heart attack and cancer.
Oxidized fats are those that have been altered through exposure to heat, light and air, and cause free radical damage in the body. Most vegetable oils, excluding Olive oil, fall into this category. Vegetable oils are far less stable than animal fat and become oxidized during the manufacturing process and after, when they sit in clear bottles. The more free radicals (oxidized molecules) we take into our body, the greater our risk for disease. Free radicals oxidize the cholesterol in the body causing it to line blood vessels as arterial plaque. In fact, only oxidized cholesterol can do this. You can reduce free radical load by avoiding generic vegetable oils, canola, safflower, sunflower, and corn oils.
Omega 6 fats are found primarily, again, in vegetable oils. The problem with the Omega 6’s is that when Americans began substituting them for cholesterol-containing fats, our Omega 6 levels skyrocketed. Optimal health requires a ratio of anywhere from 1 to 4 Omega 6’s for every Omega 3 (found in fish oil, flax seed and flax oil); the average person has a ratio in the neighborhood of 25:1.
How can you make sure your child is getting enough healthy fat in their diet? To begin with, I recommend fish oil supplements that include both the essential fats DHA and EPA. Many brands do a good job eliminating the fishy taste, and molecularly distill the oil to eliminate toxins that contaminate most fish. Good supplements are those made from species low on the food chain, because they don’t live long enough to accumulate the toxic load of the fish we usually eat like sword, salmon or tuna. Sadly, I shy away from pushing fish for dinner as I once did, as more evidence accrues that our fish supply is laced with mercury and industrial chemicals.
Use nuts and nuts butters, preferably organic. Homemade trail mixes, nut butters added to smoothies or eaten with apples, are good choices. Toast almonds and add to lightly buttered green beans. For a snack kids love, coat a banana with peanut butter, roll in shredded, unsweetened coconut or finely chopped nuts, slice on to a cookie sheet or paper plate and freeze. I call these Banana Screams—they have the mouth feel of ice cream, a few slices are satisfying, and they’re easy enough for young kids to help make.
Serve dark greens such as kale or collards regularly to help keep sugar cravings in check, and top with a dressing made from equal parts sesame tahini and boiling water. For older, more developed palates, jazz up the dressing by adding some lemon juice, fresh garlic and dried or fresh dill. Fats are most useful to the body if they are raw and unheated; so make an effort to give your child vegetable salads with olive oil/flax seed oil dressings, or nut butter dressings. Sautéing and stir-frying in oils compromise the fat so be aware that fats used in that way are of little nutritive value.
Take Two Apples And Call Me In The Morning: A Practical Guide to Using the Power of Food to Change Your Life.