These were the key findings of a University of Otago and World Health Organization (WHO) study published in the journal PLOS ONE.
Their systematic review and meta-analysis showed that a reduction of SFA intake in children and adolescents between two and 19 years of age was associated with statistically significant reductions in total and LDL cholesterol, and diastolic blood pressure.
These effects were consistent across all the trials included in the meta-analyses.
Elevated total and LDL cholesterol in childhood is associated with an increase in CVD risk factors in adulthood.
The effects on cholesterol were greatest among those in whom SFAs were replaced primarily with PUFAs or MUFAs, and when the intervention group achieved a reduction in SFAs to below 10% of its total energy intake.
Lead author Dr Lisa Te Morenga said the study was being used by the WHO as part of the evidence base for soon-to-be released recommendations on saturated and trans-fatty acids.
"Interventions targeting reduction in saturated fat intakes amongst children and adolescents could translate into major cost savings by reducing risk of cardiovascular disease in later life," she said.
Indeed, the paper noted that projected increases in non-communicable diseases over the next two decades could cost up to 75% of the global GDP as a result of healthcare costs and death- or disability-induced productivity loss.
High-fibre fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, lean meats, and low-fat dairy foods should be the core components of children's diets, rather than highly processed, fried and nutrient-poor fast foods and snacks, or processed and fatty meats, she added.
The authors also said there was a very low incidence of cardiovascular events in children, making an examination of the direct effects of saturated fat intake on them impractical.
"Total and LDL cholesterol can readily be measured in children, however, and both are well established risk factors for coronary heart disease in adults," the paper stated.
"A meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies involving over 900,000 adults found a linear association between blood cholesterol concentrations and coronary mortality, while clinical trials show that cholesterol-lowering with statin therapy reduces coronary heart disease risk.
"Furthermore, elevated LDL cholesterol in children has been found to be associated with pre-clinical signs of atherosclerosis."
The paper concluded that interventions should focus on reducing intakes of highly processed, fried and nutrient-poor fast foods and snacks, as well as processed and fatty meats.
"There is strong evidence from controlled clinical trials in adults that replacing dietary SFAs with MUFAs, PUFAs or carbohydrates reduces total and LDL cholesterol concentrations.
"In addition, there is reasonably strong evidence from randomised trials in adults that replacing SFAs with PUFAs from plant oils, but not refined carbohydrates, reduces the incidence of cardiovascular events and mortality."
Source: PLOS ONE
"Health effects of saturated and trans-fatty acid intake in children and adolescents: Systematic review and meta-analysis"
Authors: Lisa Te Morenga, Jason M. Montez