In infancy and early childhood, fats are especially important, giving the concentrated energy needed for rapid growth. Fat also provides essential fatty acids, is necessary for the absorption of fat soluble vitamins such as A, D, E and K, and for fat-soluble antioxidants.
Not all fats are the same however, and not all are equally useful. Fats are usually divided into three types according to the chemical structure of their fatty acids – saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.
Polyunsaturated fats include two major families of essential fatty acids: Omega-3 and Omega-6. Like minerals and vitamins, the Omega fats are essential to health. Our body cannot make them and relies on food to obtain them.
The Omega-3 family
Omega-3 fatty acids are part of every cell in the body. They have many important functions, including development of the brain, eye and nerve tissues, promoting healthy blood flow and reducing inflammation.
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is found in oils such as canola, linseed, walnut and soybean oil and in green vegetables.
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) can be produced in the body from alpha-linolenic acid. EPA is found in fish oils, fish and seafood (and in small amounts in lean red meat).
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is found in high levels in tuna oil. Breast milk is also rich in DHA. Smaller amounts of DHA can be found in other fish oils, fish and seafood.
The Omega-6 family
Omega-6, although chemically similar to Omega-3, acts differently, and generally in opposite ways to the Omega-3 fats. The body needs both of these nutrients in the right balance to function effectively.
- Linoleic acid (LA) is a major component of oils (including safflower, sunflower, corn, soybean, peanut and grapeseed oils) and is present in grains, many nuts, seeds and wheatgerm.
- Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) can be made in the body from the parent compound LA. GLA is the active component in evening primrose oil.
- Arachidonic acid (AA) is made from GLA. Like DHA, AA is found in breast milk.
Where can I find Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
- Oily fish such as canned sardines, mackerel, fresh tuna and salmon.
Note: to avoid the risk of Listeriosis, avoid uncooked fish and chilled, precooked seafood products during pregnancy. See our page on Infant Nutrition – Pregnancy for further information on Listeria.
- Fresh gurnard, kahawai, mullet, trevally.
- Most white fish (such as hapuku, ling, orange roughy, snapper) have an Omega-3 content less than a quarter of that of oily fish.
The NZ Food Safety Authority advises that while mercury levels in fish are very low, some fish types should be limited, especially by pregnant woman. See NZFSA booklet, Food Safety in Pregnancy, for more details: http://www.nzfsa.govt.nz/consumers/food-safety-topics/foodborne-illnesses/pregnancy/.
- Omega-enriched eggs, Omega-enriched milk, lean beef and lamb also provide small amounts.
- Linseed (oil or ground), canola oil and canola-based spreads, soy, wheatgerm and baked beans. Omega-3 from plants is not as efficiently used by the body as Omega-3 from fish.
Fats make up over 50% of the brain and the Omega-3 fatty acid DHA is the most abundant. DHA is found in human milk and some fish oils. Formulas labelled ‘Gold’ e.g. Karicare Toddler Gold Milk are enriched with Omega DHA.
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