Plant Oils and Plant-Based Kids

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-based 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 seem to say that plant oils are a no-no and should be avoided at all costs.

What about when it comes to plant 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. Extracted oil is then purified, and sometimes refined or otherwise chemically altered to make the final product you find at the grocery store.

Plant oils are often used to make salad dressings and marinades, to saute vegetables or make stir fry, to fry foods, or to make roasted vegetables in the oven.

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 

Potential benefits and considerations of plant oil

Nutritionally, there are some differences between plant oils – primarily related to their fat composition. Most plant oils contain mostly unsaturated fats, except for palm and coconut oils which are mostly saturated (which you can tell because they are solid at room temperature). 

Different plant oils will contain different compositions of omega 3 and omega 6 fats, too. We need both types of fatty acids in our diet, but most people in western cultures are lacking omega 3 fats.

If you want to avoid oils particularly high in omega 6 fatty acids, these include canola, corn, soybean, peanut, sesame, rice bran, sunflower, and cottonseed oils. Oppositely, plant oils rich in omega 3 fat include walnut, hemp, flax, and olive oils.

Although plant oils are a good source of fat, they are typically lacking in micronutrients. However, some oils – like avocado and nut oils – do contain some vitamin E. 

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.

Olive oil is one of the most highly researched plant oils out there. Studies show that olive oil may keep “bad” LDL cholesterol levels from rising and boost “good” HDL cholesterol levels, prevent the buildup of plaque in the arteries, and support heart health. Additionally, olive oil contains polyphenols that may have anti-cancer properties.

As for potential downsides, plant oils are a highly processed and certain ones may be partially hydrogenated. You may prefer plant oils made by crushing or pressing the plant, rather than chemically altered. It’s always a good idea to check the label and make sure an oil aligns with your family’s needs and preferences.

Plant oils and dietary fat requirements for kids 

Although fat sometimes gets a bad rap, 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. 

The primary reason we support the moderate inclusion of plant oils in a young child’s diet is to add healthy fats and calories to support their growth and development.

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 bad 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 each as having some unique potential benefits, using them sparingly to add dietary fat and calories where needed.

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

So, this means that if a 2 year old child requires 1,000 calories per day, she should be getting around 350 calories from fat. Fat contains 9 calories per gram, so this equates to approximately 40 grams of fat per day.

How much fat do plant oils contain?

For 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, 2 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 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 plant oil in your plant-based child’s diet, as well as ideas for incorporating other healthy plant fats. 

  • 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 and soy milk smoothies 
  • Blended cashews added to warm soups for a creamy base
  • Edamame hummus with diced 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
  • Acai bowls sprinkled with hemp seeds
  • Homemade nut milk (e.g., made with raw unsalted cashews, almonds, or pistachios)
  • 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. They may also offer some other health benefits.

However, oils shouldn’t be relied upon as the sole or primary source of fat in your child’s diet. 

Use them sparingly, with a teaspoon here and there to add fat and calories to other foods in your child’s diet. Emphasize other minimally processed, whole food healthy fat sources as much as possible like avocados, nut and seed butters, and soy foods. 

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. 

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. Plant-based oils can be used to boost fat and calorie intake for developing children alongside other healthy fats.

Chime In: What are some of your child’s favorite healthy fat sources?

If you liked this post, check out these others on the blog:

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

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