Parents told to feed kids fat!

I don’t know for how long parents have been advised not to feed their kids too much fat. ‘Eating fat makes them fat’ is the usual message here, and therefore eating less of this particular foodstuff is the way to put a break on the burgeoning rates of overweight and obesity we’re seeing in our children. This week, in a seeming ‘about-turn’ that is all too common in the area, we’ve been advised to make sure children get enough fat in their diets.

This piece of advice came about as a result of a study published in an on-line in the Nutrition Journal [1]. In this study, the body’s ability to metabolise or ‘burn’ fat was assessed in children (average age 8.7 years) and adults. Fat burning in the body was assessed by measuring something known as the ‘respiratory quotient’ of the study participants. This measurement, obtained by analysing the relative amounts of oxygen used and carbon dioxide released by an individual, allows scientists to calculate the relative amounts of fat and carbohydrate metabolized in the body’s cells.

Respiratory quotients (RQs) vary between 0.7 and 1.0. In theory, if an individual were to burn nothing but sugar, their respiratory quotient would be 1.0. Someone metabolising nothing but fat would have a respiratory quotient of 0.7. Basically, the lower the RQ is, the more fat is being metabolized relative to sugar.

Now on to the results of the study. What was found was that children, basically, had lower RQs than adults, and consequently, the relative amount of fat metabolized by children was higher too. So, logic dictates that kids can cope better with fat than adults, and therefore parents should not be concerned about including fat in their diets.

This is music to my ears. However, I feel compelled to add that the type of fat a child (or adult) eats can have an important bearing on health. A couple of types of fat worth getting out of the diet are what are known as processed, partially hydrogenated and industrially produced ‘trans’ fats. This particular brand of fat has been linked wilth all manner or ills including heart disease and some forms of cancer.

Other than that I take a quite relaxed attitude to fat, even saturated fat, found naturally in the diet. Despite repeated concerns about this form of fat, the evidence suggests this form of fat is benign at worst, and may actually have some benefits for the body. This is all discussed fully and scientifically referenced in my book The True You Diet.

Another point I make in this book is that respiratory quotients vary from person to person. Not just between young and old, but between people of similar age. And what this essentially means is that different people have differing ability to metabolise fat (or carb). Scientists have even gone so far as to attempt to dissect what might be responsible for these differences.

It has been found, for instance, that individuals with high respiratory quotients tend to be low in an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase [2] that has a role of in the breaking down of fat in the body, which is clearly essential for it to be ‘burned’. Another enzyme important for the metabolism of fat goes by the name of beta-hydroxyl acyl Co A dehydrogenase. Those with higher respiratory quotients have generally lower levels of this substance too [3].

These findings clearly have an important bearing on what would represent an individual’s ideal diet. All of this, is explored fully in the book, along with a questionnaire designed to discern what sort of foods are going to meet a individual’s nutritional requirements most fully.

I think the message for parents not to be too neurotic about feeding their kids fat is a hugely positive one. I also think that the study should remind us though, that our dietary requirements are not the same. Tailoring the diet to one’s nutritional needs is important if we are going to achieve optimal health and wellbeing.


1. Kostyak JC, et al. Relative fat oxidation is higher in children than adults. Nutrition Journal. 2007;6:19

2. Ferraro RT, et al. Relationship between skeletal muscle lipoprotein lipase activity and 24-hour macronutrient oxidation. J Clin Invest 1993;92: 441-445

3. Zurlo F, et al. Whole-body energy metabolism and skeletal muscle biochemical characteristics. Metabolism 1994;43:481-486

7 Responses to Parents told to feed kids fat!

  1. helen 19 August 2007 at 10:01 pm #

    Well seems all the “experts” have just rediscovered what was always known once before saturated fat is a natural & necessary part of our diets. Trans fats & heated vegetable oils are a huge danger especially with all the carb loading people do along with it.

  2. chris 20 August 2007 at 7:11 am #

    helen – no one has told parents not to feed kids fat – in practise what you find is that the parents themselves have done it! in the late 80s we had a similar problem with parents feeding too much fibre with studies showing kids had malnutrition. What needs to be made clear here is that if we start saying yes eat more fat I can just predict what will happen – more rubbish. The problem with this type of study is the way it is interpreted once again!

  3. Diane Carole 27 August 2007 at 7:25 am #

    I think this is what I call the American Syndrome. If you put food which is low fat, low carb and high additives, into your body, it will realize that it is getting no nutritional value, and therefore you will crave more and more food. If you put good wholesome foods into your body, you will get good nutritional value from it, and you will feel full and satisfied quickly, and thus will stop eating.
    I have never known a young child yet that has become fat on good full fat, full nutritional value foods. What they do get fat from is heavily processed ‘junk’ foods and ‘diet’ foods. Do we really want to educate our childrens metabolisms to know that they will get ’empty’ calories, and thus to crave more and more food?

  4. Hilda Glickman 4 September 2007 at 1:09 am #

    I work as a private tutor in maths and science and am amazed that parents who will spend vast amounts of money on private schools and extra tuition still feed their kids an atrocious diet such as chocolate spread sandwiches for lunch. I am also a nutritionist but when I broach the subject of diet I think parents get offended. The point about fat and the brain is that taking omega 3 is fine but no-one tells them to stop the veg oil which competes with it. They think veg oil is ‘healthy’ as it is ‘made with vegetables!’ It is in EVERYTHING nowadays . I consider this the worst dietary change this century (apart from refined cereals and sugar).

    People seem to be totally confused about fats. I also think that the scientific ability of the average individual (however well educated in other areas) is dreadful. Is this a conspiacy, I wonder? How may people know what a cell membrane is?

  5. Bo Piltson 4 September 2007 at 6:59 am #

    Dr Briffa, the BBC site at
    contains an awful lot about fat that we can´t take seriously here. Seems one would be nearer to the truth if one turned it upside down.
    In view of the immense authority carried by the BBC, wouldn´t it be worthwhile to bring this to people´s attention?


  6. chris 4 September 2007 at 12:46 pm #

    that intriques me – how can you be a maths tutor and a nutritionist? To be honest maybe they react because it isnt really ethical to ask them if you areteaching them maths – if they want help with their childrens diet maybe they would seek it out?
    Your comment about science does not suprise me but you and I may be intererested but alot of people are not -and part of that maybe because they are always being told what to do!

  7. Child obesity 22 July 2008 at 12:37 am #

    I think what happens in most low-fat diets is the children are given the run of the mill high carb food, which is usually not nutrient dense. So instead of getting a healthy low fat diet, they’re getting junk.

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