Kids need fat. Lots of it.
According to the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, teenagers should consume between 25-35 percent of their total daily calories from fat. Just how much fat is that?
According to the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine, male high school athletes need between 3,000 and 6,000 calories a day, and female high school athletes need between 2,200 and 4,000 calories a day. For an athlete trying to gain weight, those figures are significantly higher.
Say you’re a teenaged football player who needs 5,000 daily calories to maintain your current weight. If you’re looking for 30% of those calories to come from dietary fat, that’s about 166 grams of fat—or almost six full avocados.
The higher proportion of healthy fats that make up that total, the better an athlete will think, feel and perform.
“Today’s young athletes’ body and brain are starving for essential fatty acids,” Dr. Tommy John, owner of Tommy John Performance and Healing Center, writes in his book Minimize Injury, Maximize Performance: A Sports Parent’s Survival Guide.
“There are two populations of people that need healthy fats the most—children and the elderly. It’s at the tail ends of our life that we need healthy fats the most. Yet when I share with parents some of the foods their kids should be eating (such as grass-fed butter, coconut oil, egg yolks, nuts, bacon—and, yes, I’ll say it—cooking in old-fashioned lard), their expressions are priceless.”
The truth is growing athletes need a ton of nutrients and calories to support their development and high activity levels. If they or their parents are depriving them of real, natural foods people have eaten for hundreds of years because they’re worried they contain “too much fat,” it’s likely to their detriment. A young athlete on a “low-fat” diet is likely to experience high fatigue, low performance, impaired focus and a lack of positive training-induced adaptations in their body. Dietary fats are essential for fighting off inflammation, they aid in the absorption of many key vitamins, and they play a crucial role in growth and development.
Most kids (and adults) eat way too many ultra-processed foods. These foods contain staggeringly few nutrients compared to lesser-processed options. Hopefully you know by now that fruits and veggies beat out Doritos and Mountain Dew, but the conversation around fat-rich foods like butter, eggs and meat is often more muddled.
But when these foods are of high quality, they’re tremendously nutritious in reasonable amounts–particularly for youngsters. As John points out in his book, the fattest organ in a kid’s body is actually their brain, which is made up of roughly 60% fat. And not only do these foods provide high quantities of the healthy fats kids so desperately need, but a boatload of other beneficial nutrients come along for the ride, too.
Let’s take bacon and eggs, for example. Bacon and eggs, particularly of the pasture-raised and cage-free varieties, respectively, are a far better breakfast than many modern kids consume. And just as importantly, it’s something most kids are actually willing to eat.
Unfairly demonized for years, eggs are a nutritional powerhouse. Egg yolks are a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been found to reduce inflammation and enhance reaction time, as well as choline, an essential nutrient for brain development. They’re also one of the most affordable forms of high-quality protein money can buy.
Any type of pork is going to be packed with protein, but pasture-raised pork is significantly higher in healthy fats, vitamins and antioxidants.
Do you want to eat bacon with every meal? Probably not. And this article is not about “going keto” or saying everyone must eat bacon and eggs. But when the alternatives for many kids are either a slickly-marketed ‘healthy’ candy bar or skipping breakfast all together, a reasonable serving of pasture-raised bacon and cage-free eggs is a big upgrade, and one that’s going to kickstart their day on the right track.
In scenarios where you’d cook with oil or butter, John also recommends considering using a tablespoon of lard (a semi-soft white fat derived from pigs) instead. That may sound strange, but lard’s incredibly high in vitamin D, and 50% of its fat content is of the monounsaturated (heart healthy) variety. It’s also better for frying and high-heat cooking thanks to its high smoke point. Again, quality is key here, as it’s likely best to steer clear of any lard with the word “hydrogenated” on the label, which is unfortunately the case with most lards available in conventional supermarkets.
Organic eating is often more expensive than buying conventional options—there’s no arguing that. However, if you can only afford to go organic for a few of the foods on your grocery list, John urges you put those dollars towards animal-based products like meat, eggs, fatty spreads, etc. He also recommends utilizing a website called Local Harvest to find local farms in your area, which can be a direct source of highly nutritious foods at a cheaper price than you’ll find in the supermarket.
Instead of worrying about hitting a specific goal, John simply recommends kids eat some form of healthy fats with every snack and meal. These can include:
- Organic whole eggs
- Organic or ‘clean’ animal proteins
- Raw nuts and seeds
- Nut butters and spreads
- Healthy oils (Extra Virgin Olive, Virgin Coconut)
- Grass-fed butter
Again, the fewer ingredients these products contain, the healthier they’re generally going to be. Almonds are healthy, but chocolate-covered almonds dusted with artificial fruit flavoring? Not so much. More healthy fats and less added sugar is a simple formula that would improve the performance and well-being of many a young athlete.
The takeaway is that high amounts of healthy fats will lead to sharper minds and stronger bodies for young people, while avoiding fat in all forms will often lead to the opposite.
“Fats have gotten a stigma as being the enemy, a label that’s only become more believed as the growing number of overweight and obese kids in this country continues to rise,” says John.
“But the right type of healthy fats is crucial for brain growth, nerve development and hormone balance—and plays a major role when it comes to children’s overall sports performance.”
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