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Thursday August 24 03:05 AM EDT
Low-Fat Diet Good For Kids

By Neil Sherman
HealthSCOUT Reporter

WEDNESDAY, Aug. 23 (HealthSCOUT) -- Infants on a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet may have less heart disease when they grow up, a new Finnish study suggests.

The research flies in the face of U.S. nutritional guidelines, which advise parents not to worry about fat intake until their child turns 2 years old, for fear of stunting brain and nerve-cell growth. The new study says a low-fat diet has no impact on a child's ability to learn.

But before you fill your baby's bottle with skim milk, American nutritionists have yet to be convinced. They say babies need fat for energy and neurological development.

Dr. Leena Rask Nissila and her colleagues at the University of Turku in Finland recruited 764 7-month-old infants in 1990 who'd just been weaned off breast milk or formula. Half the infants continued with unregulated diets using cow's milk containing at least 1.5 percent milk fat. Meanwhile, parents of the remaining infants were given nutritional counseling to ensure their kids' daily diets included no more than 30 to 35 percent fat and less than 200 milligrams of cholesterol.

The parents were taught to use skim milk and to add 2 to 3 teaspoons of soft margarine each day to their children's diet, to maintain fat intake at 30 to 35 percent.

When the children reached age 5, Nissila measured the low-fat group's cholesterol levels and found them to be 3 to 5 percent lower than the other kids' levels.

The researchers also found that the low-fat children scored as well as the other kids on tests that measured language skills, movement and visual perception. The results were published in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The findings run counter to current nutritional guidelines offered by U.S. doctors. Children shouldn't be placed on fat-restricted diets before the age of 2, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, "when rapid growth and development require high energy intakes."

After a child turns 2, the academy recommends that the diet gradually be changed so he or she consumes no more than 30 percent and no less than 20 percent of calories from fat. Kids should replace the lost calories "by eating more grain products, fruits, vegetables, low-fat milk products or other calcium-rich foods, beans, lean meat, poultry, fish or other protein-rich foods," the academy says.

A low-fat diet could damage nerve and brain development, says Jeff Hampl, a professor of nutrition at Arizona State University and a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association. "The basic understanding is that our central nervous systems and our brains have quite a bit of fat in them. Up to the age of 2, the nervous system continues to grow, and to ensure good brain growth we want to make sure that kids are getting enough fat."

And the energy needs of children require fat, Hampl adds. "A higher fat diet gets more calories into infants, and they need those calories because of the tremendous growth they are undergoing. Fat has 9 calories per gram, more than double that of carbohydrates and protein. So, by feeding infants a somewhat higher fat diet, we are ensuring that they are getting the fat they need to develop properly."

What to Do: For information on infant nutrition, see Queens University in Canada. To learn more about infant developmental guidelines, check out the American Academy of Pediatrics.


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