This month I will look into various popular diets and whether they are child-appropriate. Most diets are developed for adults - whether for weight loss or a specific condition like heart disease, hypertension, or diabetes. They are not typically evaluated for children. The dietary pattern a parent chooses to follow is not necessarily appropriate or safe for a child.
Children are not small adults. They have their own set of requirements for good health and nutrition. Childhood years are marked by rapid changes in growth and development, requiring many nutrients to ensure the healthy development of organs and to attain proper growth.
I will look at 4 eating patterns: paleo, keto, vegan, and vegetarian. I will present facts based on research and childhood nutrient requirements, listing the pros and cons of each. I will start with the paleo diet.
Young boy representing the Paleolithic Era as a nomad and hunter.
What is the paleo or paleolithic diet that has become so popular over the last decade?
Paleo, by definition, constitutes a pattern of eating that our ancestors (think cavemen) lived by before farming came into being, when they were hunters and gatherers. The name derives from the Paleolithic Era - a VERY long time ago! The developer, Loren Cordain, Ph.D., who studied nutritional anthropology, concluded that since our DNA has not been altered in over two million years, we should eat similarly to our ancestors from that era. His diet attempted to promote health and wellness, compared to the typical Western diet.
A problem with that thinking is that our activities do not mimic those of that time. We are not nomads, hunters, and gatherers, nor do we walk miles daily. Despite that, the paleo movement became wildly popular with adults, many of whom are now passing this on to children.
This diet is high in protein and low in carbs, consisting of meats, vegetables, fruit, nuts, and seeds.
What does paleo exclude?
Paleo excludes those foods that were later obtained by farming -
grains, legumes, and dairy.
Foods allowed on the paleo diet depicted here include meat, seafood, eggs, fruit, vegetables, and nuts.
What do you eat on a paleo diet?
Lean meats, especially grass-fed animals or wild game
Nuts and seeds
Oils from fruits and nuts
Overall, it sounds pretty healthy, right?
What do you avoid on a paleo diet?
Grains of all kinds - wheat, oats, barley, etc. - thus no bread, pasta, cereals, crackers, etc.
Legumes such as lentils, beans, and peanuts
Dairy products - milk, cheese, butter
Starchy vegetables such as potatoes, peas, and corn
Refined and added sugar
Highly processed foods such as snack and junk food
The paleo diet excludes all grains and legumes.
Paleo is considered a low-carb diet; only 30% of total calories come from carbohydrates. The breakdown of daily macronutrients on paleo is
I will compare that soon with children’s nutrition requirements.
Short-term studies suggest that this eating pattern may help with the management of
High triglycerides and cholesterol
The improvements found were primarily attributed to the absence of processed foods and the increased intake of fruit and vegetables.
One problem seen was that followers had difficulty sustaining this diet long-term.
Good points about paleo:
Paleo eliminates added sugar, high salt, and processed foods, that is, energy-dense foods.
The focus is on eating nutrient-dense whole foods.
Paleo can help stabilize blood sugar.
Problems with paleo:
1. Eliminating grains, legumes, and dairy eliminates sources of fiber, calcium, and many other nutrients. Some of these foods are also the primary energy sources for children. This type of eating can lead to nutritional deficiencies.
Potential deficiencies on this diet include:
B Vitamins - B1, B3, B6, and B12
2. Paleo is high in protein which can be problematic for some individuals, including children, by increasing the stress on the kidneys and liver, which must process the protein. The high animal protein in this diet can be bad for the gut microbiome. One has to be cautious in selecting animal protein sources, or you end up with lots of saturated fat in the diet.
Too much protein in infants and young children can be dangerous, leading to dehydration and kidney stones.
3. Paleo is too restrictive on carbs for kids. Children over 2 need to have 45-60% of their diet based on carbohydrates; infants need 40-45%, mainly from breastmilk or formula. Paleo promotes far less than this.
Macronutrients - as a percent of total daily calories:
Paleo My Plate recommendations
Carbohydrates 30% 45-60%
Protein 30% 10-20%
Fats 40% 30-40% (infants)
25-35% (4 and older)
Infants and children need more carbohydrates and less protein. Consider breast milk which has about seven times the amount of carbohydrates than protein and twice the amount of carbs than fat.
4. Paleo eliminates significant sources of healthy nutrients. To get enough of these nutrients, a child would have to eat massive amounts of vegetables - clearly impractical.
5. Paleo can be expensive to follow due to the types of meats (grass-fed, wild game, and seafood)
Even though paleo is being promoted for kids and for certain conditions, such as depression, autoimmune disorders, ADHD, and even autism, it can leave kids nutritionally deficient.
Fortified grains and legumes are a significant source of B vitamins.
Not getting enough calcium and vitamin D during childhood can lead to osteoporosis later. Dairy products are one of the primary sources of this.
Dairy products, as depicted here, are not allowed on the paleo diet, making it difficult to get enough calcium and vitamin D, especially in a growing child.
Infants, toddlers, and young children have nutritional needs that differ from adults, primarily because their organs, including the brain, are still developing.
Low-carb diets during the growing years, including adolescence, should be avoided. Carbohydrates provide vital energy sources for kids.
Carbohydrates are not bad, some forms are undesirable (simple carbs, sugars, and processed foods), but whole grains and starchy vegetables are excellent and healthy fuel sources. Restricting carbs too much restricts calories and can lead to poor weight gain in a growing child. Parents of children with celiac disease, who have to be on a gluten-free diet, often find it challenging to provide enough calories for their child to gain weight.
There are many healthy sources of carbohydrates, seen here, that provide the primary energy source for children's bodies and brains, that are not allowed in the paleo diet.
Rigid, restrictive diets are inappropriate for children and difficult to maintain. A diet that makes much more sense for a child is to take the paleo diet and add back in the grains, legumes, and dairy, that then becomes the Mediterranean diet, which includes all the food groups and nutrients needed for a growing child.
Numerous websites tout the benefits of paleo for kids, not basing their information on science, so readers beware. There is now a baby food company, Serenity Kids, based on the paleo diet. Everything is dairy-free and grain free. This is fine if used occasionally but alarming if that is all a parent feeds their infant.
Taking junk and excess sugar out of the diet benefits everyone. However, it doesn’t make sense to eliminate whole categories of healthy foods beneficial for a growing child.
The bottom line is that the paleo diet has not been researched in children; those promoting it for kids do not base this on facts. What is designed for adults is not always appropriate for children, who depend on their parents to make healthy choices. Please do so wisely with the correct information.