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Cutting Back on Fat Is Safe for Kids

WebMD Health News

Feb. 5, 2001 -- Most experts agree that too much fat is bad for the heart and that many Americans need to cut back on their intake. But when it comes to children, adequate fat is essential for their growth. So are reduced-fat diets safe for children?

A new study in the February issue of Pediatrics answers that question by showing that cutting back on fat is not only safe for children, it also can help lower cholesterol in children whose levels already are elevated.

The researchers examined the effect that diet had on children with high levels of low-density lipoprotein, or LDL cholesterol. LDL cholesterol is what's called the "bad" cholesterol, the type that can help lead to heart disease. The study also looked at the overall safety of reduced-fat diets in children.

"The importance of this study shows that lowering saturated fat in the diet will lower cholesterol in children and that it's safe to do so," says the study's senior author Eva Obarzanek, PhD, RD, MPH, a nutritionist at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute in Bethesda, Md. "We have a public health recommendation that says people should not get more than 30% of their calories from fat, and [in our study], we put the children on 28% fat."

For the research, more than 600 children were randomly assigned to either continue their usual diet or were placed on a reduced-fat diet. The children were between the ages of 8 and 10 at the beginning of the study, and their cholesterol levels, growth, and nutritional status were followed for seven years.

When the researchers assessed growth and nutritional status, they found that all of the children went through puberty with no difference between the two groups. Both groups also experienced normal growth and reached normal height and weight. The reduced-fat group also had the same levels of vitamin and mineral intake as the children eating an unrestricted diet.

In regards to cholesterol, after one year, the researchers found that the reduced-fat group had lower levels of both LDL and total cholesterol. The same was true after three years.

Things got a little murkier later on. At their five-year follow-up, the difference in cholesterol levels between the two groups seemed to level off. Both groups of children had lower levels of LDL and total cholesterol than when the study began, but now their levels were almost the same. And at the seven-year follow-up, LDL cholesterol had increased slightly, and again, the researchers found little difference between the two groups.

The results are still encouraging, though. The lack of difference at five and seven years may have been due to reduced compliance with the reduced-fat program, says Andrew Tershakovec, MD. "But when they looked specifically at a group of kids who really stayed with the program, then there was more of an effect."

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