“Fat” is one of the essential nutrients adolescents (and all humans) need to eat regularly. The others are Carbohydrates and Protein. Teens often fear eating foods with fat because of the negative association society has created with “being fat”. However, this fear is unfounded, as eating fat does not make us fat, and is in fact crucial in many important body functions.
Fat’s role in the adolescent body
The brain is 60% fat, and so fat is amongst the most important nutrient to ensure its structure and ability to perform all it’s roles and functions.
For this reason, it also plays an important role in maintaining mental health.
Hormone production ramps up in adolescence, and they need fuel to be created and work at their peak. Fat is specifically required in making the steroid hormones that include androgens, progesterone, and estrogens, which are crucial in puberty (and beyond).
Many important vitamins- specifically vitamins A, D, E, and K, need fat to be absorbed. Without fat we don’t get the benefit of eating those vitamins.
When we eat vitamin rich foods, like vegetables for example, we can increase the nutritional benefit of that food by adding fat to it! Without fat the vitamins aren’t as bioavailable to the body, and can’t be absorbed or used.
This is one reason why I always recommend adding fat (in the form of oil, butter, dressing, cheese, etc.) to vegetables. (The other reason is because it makes the food more enjoyable! And then adolescents are more likely to eat vegetables! This post gives you some other strategies for helping your adolescent eat veggies.)
Fat-containing foods provide energy when they’re digested. And because these foods take longer than carbohydrate and protein foods to be broken down, the energy they provide is longer lasting and more sustained.
Contributes to satiation & enjoyment
Fat makes food satisfying. It also provides a nice mouth feel that makes food more enjoyable to eat. And because food should taste good and keep us satisfied, this is an important role!
Also, because adolescents often have long gaps between meals, meals need to be satisfying and filling to provide long-lasting energy. Having some fat-containing food in the morning, especially, is one good way to achieve this.
How much fat does an adolescent need in a day?
Fat should make up 25% to 35% of an adolescent’s total daily intake. That’s around 56 to 78 grams per day for an adolescent eating 2000 calories per day. Depending on an adolescent’s age, development stage, activity level, and more, this amount will likely increase.
Fat containing foods
Fat is in many foods including:
- Fish, meat, chicken, eggs
- Dairy products
- Nuts, seeds, and their oils & butters
- Chips, cookies, chocolate
What are “good” fats and “bad” fats?
You’ve likely heard the terms “good” and “bad” fats. What does that actually mean??
Unsaturated fats have health properties, such as lowering inflammation, improving blood cholesterol levels, and many other benefits.
These fats are found in foods like nuts & seeds, avocado, flax seeds, canola oil, and fish.
Unsaturated fats include MONOUNSATURATED FATS and POLYUNSATURATED FATS. You may be familiar with the polyunsaturated fats OMEGA 3 and OMEGA 6.
Omega 3 fats are often hard to eat enough of (unless you regularly eat fatty fish), and supplementing it- as a pill or oil- can be beneficial. You can read more about Omega 3 fats in this post.
Saturated fats are naturally in animal-based food products, like meats and dairy foods, plus some tropical oils like coconut and palm.
There is contradictory evidence as to whether or not saturated fats are harmful, as recent studies have found these fats do NOT contribute to negative health outcomes, and may be actually be protective.
Trans fats are processed to make them more stable and less likely to spoil. They are the most harmful, contributing to heart disease, inflammation, and other chronic diseases. As such, they have been banned in the US and Canada.
Many foods contain both saturated and unsaturated fats, so it’s difficult- and unnecessary- to put foods into strict categories. We don’t eat “nutrients”, we eat food! So rather than thinking about the nitty gritty components, recognize the benefits of these foods (in terms of satiety, enjoyment, and crucial physical roles). Focus on serving a variety of foods and aim for foods from different food groups, complementary flavors and textures, and variety in color.
Recognize that all foods provide essential nutrients for your adolescent’s growth and development, and continued good health.