Plant oils for kids. Should kids be eating vegetable oils, and are they a healthy source of fat? Here’s what you need to know about incorporating plant oils as part of your child’s diet, as well as other healthy fats for plant-based kids.
If you’ve been exploring a whole foods plant-based diet, you’ve probably come across some resources that say plant oils are a no-no and should be avoided at all costs.
What does the evidence say, especially when it comes to vegetable oil as a source of dietary fat for kids? Here’s what we came up with, including some of our own thoughts on the topic.
What are plant oils?
Plant oils are mixtures of triglycerides that have been extracted from the seeds of vegetables. Oil is then purified and sometimes refined or otherwise chemically altered to make the final product you find at the grocery store.
Some of the most commonly used plant oils include:
- Canola oil
- Soybean oil
- Safflower oil
- Peanut oil
- Cottonseed oil
- Sunflower oil
- Avocado oil
- Sesame oil
- Olive oil
- Flax oil
- Coconut oil
- Palm oil
- Corn oil
- Walnut oil
- Hemp seed oil
Nutritionally, there are some differences between plant oils – primarily related to their fat composition.
For instance, the best source of monounsaturated fats is extra virgin olive oil. Pure vegetable oil contains the most polyunsaturated fatty acids per tablespoon.
Most plant oils contain mostly unsaturated fats, except for palm and coconut oils which are mostly saturated.
Plant oils are typically lacking in micronutrients, although some oils contain vitamins E and K.
Olive, avocado, coconut, flaxseed, walnut, and hemp seed oils are particularly rich in antioxidants and may offer the added benefit of having anti-inflammatory properties.
Plant oils and dietary fat requirements for kids
Although fat sometimes gets a bad rap in the health community, it’s an essential macronutrient – especially when it comes to growing kids.
Dietary fats should not be restricted for children under the age of two years, as this is a critical time for brain development, for which fat is needed.
However, an excessive amount of dietary fat can lead to unwanted weight gain due to its high calorie content.
This can potentially set up your child for carrying extra weight into adulthood, increasing the risk for conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.
Furthermore, if you have a strong family history of high cholesterol or heart disease, limiting your child’s saturated and trans fat intake – instead focusing on unsaturated plant fats – may be prudent. If you have this concern, this is something you should discuss with your pediatrician.
Generally, young children should be receiving between 30-40% of their calories from fat. However, 28% of toddlers (regardless of diet) do not get enough fat.
This number may be even higher in plant-based kids due to the often low-fat nature of a plant-based diet, but it really depends on what foods make up your child’s regular eating pattern.
Predominantly plant-based kids typically don’t consume as much fat as their omnivorous peers who may be regularly consuming animal products like dairy, eggs, meats, and fish.
Regardless of age, most professional health organizations recommend that no more than 10% of calories should generally come from saturated fat, which would include coconut and palm oils.
But that doesn’t mean these two oils are unhealthy for kids in small amounts. Interestingly, in a 2018 review of the health effects of palm oil on children, researchers concluded that palm oil is not inherently unhealthy for children. In fact, palm oil contains palmitic acid, an essential fat for infant development that is also found in breast milk.
What does this mean? Perhaps instead of labeling plant oils as being “good” or “bad”, we can recognize them as having some unique potential benefits, using them sparingly to add dietary fat and calories where needed.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting vegetable oils that contain more than 4 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon, and avoiding trans fats and partially hydrogenated oils.
Below are the AHA dietary fat recommendations for kids. As you can see, fat is super important for infants and toddlers especially.
- 1 year = 40% of calories from fat
- 2-3 years = 30-35% of calories from fat
- 4-8 years = 25-35% of calories from fat
- 9-13 years = 25-35% of calories from fat
- 14-18 years = 25-35% of calories from fat
How much fat do plant oils contain?
For easy reference, below is the fat content in one tablespoon of some of the most commonly consumed vegetable oils.
- Olive oil = 13.5 grams total fat, 1.86 grams of saturated fat
- Avocado oil = 14 grams total fat, 2 grams of saturated fat
- Canola oil = 14 grams total fat, 1 gram of saturated fat
- Corn oil = 14 grams total fat, 2 grams of saturated fat
- Peanut oil = 14 grams total fa, 2.5 grams of saturated fat
- Coconut oil = 13.5 grams total fat, 11.2 grams of saturated fat
How to use plant oils and other healthy fats for kids
As you saw above, plant oils are a dense source of fat that are easy to add to just about anything.
Your child’s primary source of fat shouldn’t be coming from vegetable oils, but you can certainly incorporate some plant oils into his overall healthy diet for additional fat and calories.
Here are some ways you can use small amounts of vegetable oil along with other healthy fats in your plant-based child’s diet.
- Avocado toast drizzled with an algae-based DHA supplement
- Banana boats with peanut butter, sprinkled with ground flax seeds
- Almonds or almond butter added to fruit smoothies
- Blended cashews added to warm soups for a creamy base
- Edamame hummus with chopped olives on pita bread
- Homemade popsicles made with fruit and coconut cream
- Chowder or soups made with canned coconut milk
- Whole grain pasta tossed in extra virgin olive oil
- Cubed baked tofu
- Berry bowls made with frozen pureed acai and plant-based yogurt, sprinkled with hemp seeds
- Broccoli cooked with 1-2 teaspoons of extra virgin olive oil
Should you give your child plant oils?
Plant oils are an easy way to contribute some of the dietary fat that developing children require for proper growth. However, they shouldn’t be relied upon as the sole or primary source of fat in your child’s diet.
The plant oil with the most evidence behind its health benefits is extra virgin olive oil, so we typically recommend that as a primary oil for young kids.
Still, use all plant oils sparingly, with a teaspoon here and there to add fat and calories to other foods in your child’s diet. Emphasize other whole food healthy fat sources as much as possible.
Plant oils can be an easy way to provide some healthy, unsaturated fats for kids, but they shouldn’t be the primary source of dietary fat. They can be used to boost fat and calorie intake for developing children alongside other healthy fats like avocados, nuts, seeds, and soy foods.
Chime In: What are some of your child’s favorite healthy fat sources?
For more guidance on nourishing plant-based kids well, check out our ebook: First Bites – The Definitive Guide to Baby-Led Weaning for Plant-Based Babies