Do babies need cholesterol?

My dietitian told me that I need cholesterol for brain development in my 1 year old. I thought it was fat and protein. Is this correct information and where will I get cholesterol if my child has a dairy allergy? I am also raising him vegetarian.

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Sue Gilbert

Sue Gilbert works as a consulting nutritionist. For many years she worked with Earth's Best Organic Baby Food, integrating nutrition and... Read more

Dear Nancy,

There is some speculation that babies need dietary cholesterol (i.e. need to consume cholesterol in the foods they eat) to properly form the fatty sheath around their nerves. However, studies have not proven that definitively. Breastfed babies do have higher blood cholesterol levels than formula fed babies, where the fat is provided by a mixture of vegetable oils. This does not mean that cholesterol is necessary. Cholesterol is found only in animal products so a vegetarian eating no animal products will not get any dietary cholesterol.

Cholesterol is an essential constituent of body tissues and is required for the regulation of important body functions. Cholesterol does not need to be in the diet because the body readily synthesizes it. Therefore, it is not possible to say that your need to have cholesterol in your child's diet. You are correct in your belief that fat and protein are very important in the diet, both for multiple reasons. Proper brain development is dependent on a number of dietary factors. So long as you are providing your child with a wide variety of nutrient dense foods, and you see and measure that he/she is growing and developing fine, than the diet he is receiving most likely filling his needs.

In raising a vegetarian child, especially one that cannot eat dairy foods (a great source of high quality protein and fat) your bigger concern than cholesterol will be caloric density. Toddlers are not able to tolerate a very bulky diet so meals must contain foods of high caloric density. If no animal products are to be used, be sure to include plant foods such as nuts and nut butters. olives, dates, and avocados. According to the Textbook of Pediatric Nutrition, the most dangerous time period for inadequate energy intake is during the weaning stage in early infancy. By now your child is probably coming out of that period, and you will need to evaluate the adequacy of his growth and development and to evaluate his energy intake to be sure his needs are optimally met.

Thank you for writing.

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