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Infant Brain Development: The Type of Fat Matters

By Michelle Mathura, Registered Dietitian and Nutritionist

My little girl Lily turned one this summer! The past year has flown by so fast at times and then there were moments where the days just lingered as we lazily enjoyed sleeping, nursing, and cuddling.

As a Mom, and a registered dietitian, I really wanted to be successful at breastfeeding. My goal was to breastfeed for 6 months and go longer if I could. I’ve exceeded that goal! Recently I’ve been thinking a lot more about the type of fat that Lily is consuming now that she is eating more table food. Now that she has turned one we have introduced her to whole milk, yes cow’s milk – organic and grass fed. I’ve read that there are higher amounts of Omega 3 fatty acids in grass fed dairy cow milk than others.

We’ve always focused on getting some really good fats in her diet since she was able to eat pureed foods at 4 months. I’ve done my best at trying to remember to take my prenatal vitamin with DHA and Omega 3 Fatty Acids and including healthy fats in my diet but there are days that I forget and then I get back on track. You know… life can get busy and hectic. Every day we cook with avocado oil. I use it most often when cooking Lily’s eggs, veggies, and add it to anything that I am boiling as well as her sweet potatoes. We also try to get in curry (gotta love that turmeric) and salmon a few times a week! The avocado oil makes the best egg and avocado quesadillas. So light and fluffy and so tasty.

There were days where Lily thoroughly enjoyed her buttered (or peanut buttered) whole wheat toast or pureed fruit with coconut oil. I’m thankful to be able to work at home and have the opportunity, ability and knowledge to make Lily’s food for her. No processed food or store-bought food for meals. I’ll admit, we do purchase organic puffs or freeze-dried fruits and vegetables for a snack. We had great success the other day making an awesome nutrient dense cashew peanut butter snack, high in good fats and a good source of protein.

The more I visit with other Mom’s and learn about their experiences with breastfeeding and transitioning to table foods I learn that many of us are on different pages. In years past, it was the norm (and recommended) to transition your one-year old from breastfeeding or formula to whole fat cow’s milk. The red label. The goal behind this was to ensure that your little one was getting a good amount of fat, calories, vitamin D and calcium, fat being the most important nutrient.

In the past year, I’ve heard more and more about Mom’s choosing, and Pediatricians supporting, the use of nut milk to replace whole milk when the baby turns one. Is this safe? Should there be a concern? The brain of a human grows at rapid speed from birth until 2 years old. This is the time when most brain development happens and when fat is essential in the diet – it is throughout life but especially now. Fat intake and brain development are linked, so does the type of fat matter or the source of fat matter in the diet of the baby?

 good fats, avocado oil, infant brain development, dietician advice  

The Skinny on Fat:

Our brain is roughly made up of 60% fat. Fatty acids are among the most crucial molecules that determine your brain's integrity and ability to perform.  Unsaturated fats, essential fatty acids (EFA), linoleic (LA) and alpha-linolenic (ALA) cannot be synthesized by your body and must be obtained from food.

LA is an Omega-6 fatty acid and ALA is an Omega-3 fatty acid. These types of fat are important for brain development during pregnancy and postnatal including the first 2 years of a baby’s life. For ages 1 and older, ALA is the only omega-3 that is essential. Essential means we need to consume it because the body doesn’t make it. Omega-9 fatty acids are made by the body therefore they are non-essential but still beneficial when consumed.

Long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) can be synthesized from ALA but it’s not very effective so we must find another way to intake EPA and DHA. DHA is important for fetal growth and development.

High concentrations of DHA are present in the brain and retina. The accumulation of DHA in the brain continues throughout the first 2 years after birth.

Food Sources:

There are more Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids in avocado oil then in the same serving of olive oil. Avocado is also high in Omega-9 fatty acids.

avocado oil, recipes with avocado oil, infant brain developemnt

Another great source of Omega-3 fatty acids is wild caught salmon. ½ fillet of cooked wild caught Alaskan salmon contains an estimated 3,982mg of Omega-3 fatty acids. Other good sources are: flaxseed, chia seeds, and black walnuts. Beef is very low in omega-3s, but beef from grass-fed cows contains somewhat higher levels of omega-3s, mainly as ALA, than that from grain-fed cows 

Long chain PUFA are important for brain synaptogenesis, membrane function, and, potentially, myelination. Breast milk (human milk) contains omega-3s as ALA, EPA and DHA. Infant formula contains DHA and EPA. It is possible for the human body to produce DHA from ALA, the woman’s body does a good job of this.

Breast milk and infant formula supply 40–50% of their energy as fat. Intaking enough of the right types of fat during pregnancy and in the first two years of the baby’s life is important for brain development.

Omega-6 fatty acids are essential to brain function and normal growth and development. Our body does not make them so we must eat foods that are rich in both Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids.

In the end… choosing the right type of fat and overall food source is important for both the baby’s health and brain development and for the mother. A colorful variety of food balanced with the right amount of nutrients will have a positive effect on brain development. Choosing avocado oil over other oils, eating a good source of salmon twice a week and following more of a Mediterranean style of eating will help to get in the right types of nutrients for good health.

Just the Facts: 

Avocado Oil: 1 tablespoon of avocado oil contains roughly 14 grams of fat. The fat sources are broken down to: 1.6g saturated fat, 9.9g monounsaturated fat, 1.9g polyunsaturated fat, 134mg Omega-3 fatty acids and 1,754mg Omega-6 fatty acids.

Avocado: 1 avocado (no skin or seed) contains an estimated 227kcal, 21g. fat, 9.2g fiber, 12g carbohydrate. The fat breakdown is: 2.9g saturated fat, 13.3g monounsaturated fat, 2.5g polyunsaturated fat, 150mg Omega-3 fatty acids, and 2298mg Omega-6 fatty acids.  Also included calcium, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Potassium, and Sodium.

Michelle is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Certified Diabetes Educator and is the Nutrition Expert for NeoMega Nutritionals. The avocado oil she uses is by Neomega Nutritionals. She also is the Director of the Nutrition Division at DM&A, an Independent Consultant for Arbonne International, and most importantly - a wife, mother and a lover of all things good and true.