My boys, ages 7 and 9, got in the car recently while the radio was chattering about Paula Deen’s diabetes and a controversial obesity initiative in Georgia. After listening for a minute, my younger son asked, “Mom, is it bad to eat foods that have fat in them?” I realized, as I started to answer him, that his question is quite universal.
In the United States, we have been led to believe that fat is bad for us. In some cases (trans fats) it is, but the right fats play an integral role in our health. Here are the facts I gave my son:
●Healthful fat is a concentrated source of energy for the body.
●It is a building block of cell membranes and hormones.
●Fat slows absorption of carbohydrates, and other parts of our meals, into our blood. This helps us feel full longer.
●Our bodies can’t digest and absorb vitamins A, D, E and K without it.
●Our brains are partially constructed from healthful fats.
After I listed all of these health benefits, my son said, “Wow, so why do so many people say fat is bad for us?” Great question, buddy.
The short answer is that there are “bad fats” and there are “good fats.” I’m not going to go into great detail about “bad fats” but instead focus on which fats are healthful and a good choice to feed to our growing children.
Nuts, seeds and avocados are whole foods that provide healthful fat in delicious snack-size shapes. I use, and highly recommend, the following five healthy oils:
Extra-virgin olive oil is rich in antioxidants that help prevent cellular damage. It is ideal for use in salad dressings and to toss over cooked veggies for extra flavor. It needs to be heated over a low to medium fire, never high.
Flaxseed oil is full of heart-healthy, anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. It turns rancid when heated, so we use it in pesto, hummus, salad dressings and other foods that are not cooked. (Tip: Anytime a dressing calls for oil, use half olive and half flaxseed oil.) My boys love their air-popped popcorn tossed with flaxseed oil and sea salt. So simple, delicious and healthy.
Grapeseed oil has a clean, neutral flavor that works in most recipes, is ideal for stir-fries and other high-heat cooking, and is full of Vitamin E, flavonoids and antioxidants. Always buy organic, as grapes are often heavily sprayed with pesticides, and, according to the Environmental Working Group’s study, grapes retain pesticides even after washing.
Walnut oil is wonderful for baking because of its slightly sweet flavor, and it contains omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, potassium and Vitamin E.
Coconut oil is a fun alternative in baking and when roasting vegetables. Many naturally bitter vegetables become more palatable to children when roasted in coconut oil. Coconut oil is a saturated fat, so you might wonder why it is healthful. It is a natural saturated fat, meaning that it is found this way in nature. It is not chemically hydrogenated like many other, unhealthful saturated fats.
Coconut oil has been shown to support a strong immune system and have anti-bacterial properties due to its content of lauric acid. It has also been shown to help externally, when rubbed on eczema and skin rashes. You want to buy an extra-virgin non-hydrogenated coconut oil. It comes as a solid, so scoop out however much you need and melt to use.
So back to my son’s question: Are fats bad for us? Chemically processed fats are unhealthful. Too much healthful fat can even be unhealthful, especially when there is an obesity and diabetes epidemic on the rise. But the right fats, in reasonable amounts, are essential for good health. So don’t be afraid; just choose wisely.
Try these kid-friendly dishes from the Food section’s recipe database. Make sure to use olive or grapeseed oil, rather than canola oil, when given that option.
Olive oil: Carrot Apple Soup, Cornmeal Crusted Tilapia With Cilantro Pesto, Quick Refried-Bean Quesadillas With Corny Salsa Verde
Grapeseed oil: Curry Chicken for Baby, Slaw With Fresh Pineapple
Coconut oil: Chocolate Milkshake Smoothie
Seidenberg is the co-founder of Nourish Schools, a D.C.-based nutrition education company. Look for her posts on the On Parenting blog at washingtonpost.com/