If you look at most of the studies supporting Paleo, the vast majority of them were done on adults. That makes sense, because Paleo really started as a diet to combat chronic diet-and-lifestyle diseases like type 2 diabetes and fatty liver disease. Up until recently, the vast majority of people who got those diseases were middle-aged adults. If only adults get type 2 diabetes, then all your studies on type 2 diabetes have to be done on adults.
But today, those lifestyle diseases are showing up in younger and younger patients, including kids. Childhood obesity is the obvious case in point, but kids today are also getting diseases like type 2 diabetes and fatty liver disease. The root problems are basically the same: lousy food, too much stress, not enough sleep, and sedentary lifestyles. The only difference is that today, kids can eat so much sugar and junk that they're getting diseases that used to take decades. Efficiency!
The point is that kids can suffer from eating junk food just like adults do. But there's a diet specifically designed to heal those problems - or better yet, to prevent them before they ever start.
There is no one “perfect diet” for kids any more than there is for adults. But the evidence suggests that a Paleo diet absolutely can be safe and healthy for kids. It’s easy to meet any special nutritional needs of childhood with Paleo food, and yes, it's possible to get kids to eat broccoli.
Kids Don’t Miss Out on Any Essential Nutrients in Grains and Legumes.
There are no known nutrients found only in grains or legumes. Nobody ever developed a nutrient deficiency from avoiding those foods, unless they were also eating an imbalanced diet in other ways. Want fiber and antioxidants? Get them from fruits and vegetables. B vitamins? Eat meat or fish. A child eating a balanced Paleo diet won't somehow be in danger from avoiding grains or legumes.
Fresh, Whole Foods are Good for Everyone.
Here’s a basic guide to building a Paleo meal:
- A huge pile of fresh vegetables
- A moderate amount of animal protein (meat, fish, eggs)
- Healthy fats like olive oil and coconut oil
- Optionally, some fruit or nuts.
- Optionally, some starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes.
Of course, there are a thousand variations on that theme. You can do high-fat or low-fat. High-carb, medium-carb, or low-carb. Dairy or dairy-free. “Paleo” can mean all kinds of different things, all versions of Paleo are based on eating fresh, whole foods with a lot of vegetables and plenty of nutrient-dense animal foods. It's not about eating piles of meat all the time; it's about balancing reasonable amounts of animal protein with lots of other whole foods.
These foods are good for kids for the same reasons that they’re good for adults:
- High in nutritional value (yes, including the meat, and especially including the fish and the eggs)
- Low in gut irritants (which are dangerous for kids, too!)
- Low in sugar and don’t cause blood sugar spikes, so they don’t cause metabolic problems
- Don’t contribute to inflammation (kids can have systemic diet-induced inflammation just like adults)
It’s hard to even come up with a reasonable case against a Paleo plate of food. Try saying it to yourself: “no, I don’t want my child to eat vegetables, because then he might get all the nutrients he needs and that would be…bad?” Or maybe “I would rather have my child eat Lunchables with plastic ‘cheese’ and fake bologna than some leftover steak and green pepper strips.” Really? Can you say that with a straight face?
Kids and Carbs
A lot of the reluctance to put kids on a Paleo-style diet comes from the misconception that Paleo has to be low-carb. That’s just not true. Paleo can be low-carb, high-carb, or moderate-carb. It can have any amount of carbs you want.
For kids, the extreme end of the low-carb spectrum tends to be less than ideal. The ketogenic diet (extreme low-carb, high-fat) has been tested extensively in children; it’s a very effective treatment for medication-resistant childhood epilepsy. But here’s the problem: kids on the ketogenic diet routinely report very unpleasant side effects, especially gastrointestinal problems.
Other research has shown that children can safely eat a moderate-carb diet, well within Paleo norms.
In this study, 31 obese children (average age of 11) went on a 30% carb diet. The children lost weight and improved markers of heart health and insulin resistance. There were no serious side effects.
In this study, the patients were a little older, age 12-18. The study tested three diets:
- Low-fat, high-carb: 50-60% carbs, 30% fat, 20% protein
- Low-carb, low-fat. Up to 20% carbs, 30% fat, and 50% protein (that’s a lot of protein)
- Low-carb, high-fat. Up to 20% carb, 60% fat, and 20% protein
All of the groups lost weight at the same rate and there were no significant differences at the end of the study. None of the groups had any major problems: some of them got headaches or upset stomachs, but for most kids it was only once. No one diet had any more complaints than any other diet. Moderate-carb, high-fat can be just as "safe" as high-carb, low-fat.
And if you're interested in weight loss specifically, here's a review of the evidence. The authors concluded that “Current evidence suggests that improved weight status can be achieved in overweight or obese children and adolescents irrespective of the macronutrient distribution of a reduced-energy diet.” Translation: kids can lose weight no matter what percentage of their diet comes from protein, carbs, and fat.
Kids can be perfectly healthy on a moderate-carb diet, and Paleo can easily be that diet. Potatoes and sweet potatoes are your friends. Fried plantains are your friends. Super low-carb diets might not be great for kids, but that doesn’t mean Paleo is off the table.
Special Nutritional Considerations for Children
Children aren’t just adults on a smaller scale, and they do have some special nutritional needs. But it’s easily possible to fill all of those with Paleo.
Calcium is particularly important for children, especially girls (who are more likely to develop osteoporosis or other bone problems later in life). Dairy is a Paleo gray area and some kids do just fine with it. But if yours don’t, calcium from bones (bone-in salmon and sardines) and leafy green vegetables is more absorbable than calcium from dairy.
Iron deficiency is especially likely among children who are overweight or obese. On average, these children eat as much iron as anyone else, but the low-grade inflammation in their body prevents them from absorbing and using the iron. The solution isn’t more dietary iron; it’s healing the inflammation.
Low Vitamin D status is a problem for anyone who spends most of their time indoors. A child may be Vitamin D deficient even if his weight is normal. The best source of Vitamin D is sunlight: send your kids outside to play!
…OK, but How do I Get Them to Eat It?
Completely aside from nutritional concerns, another big issue with kids is the age-old problem of getting them to eat their vegetables in the first place. And what about food they get at school? Food they get at their friends’ houses? Nobody wants their kid to be known as the weirdo Paleo kid who’s never any fun because she can’t have candy.
Every kid is different, and every parent has a different set of cultural preferences and strictness and discipline choices.
Research so far supports…
- Parental modeling. Eat good food in front of your kids and make it clear that you enjoy it. Don’t treat vegetables as something gross that they have to eat to “earn” dessert.
- Involving kids in the cooking process. Let them get their hands dirty.
- Early and repeated exposure to new foods. Often a food has to be offered to a child several times before the child will try it. Offering vegetables early, right when solid foods are being introduced, increases a child’s willingness to try them later.
- Flexible rules. Making sugar an absolutely forbidden treat just makes it more attractive, and you can’t control your kids’ diet forever. This study found that prohibiting a food just made kids eat more of it when they finally got their hands on it. And kids (especially boys) who grow up in ultra-strict food households are more likely to develop eating disorders later on. Barring life-threatening allergies, it’s totally fine and normal for kids to have flexibility to enjoy social events. Let them find out for themselves how food affects their bodies and talk about it together.
But What if My Kid Has…
Food allergies? Check out some advice on:
- Paleo without eggs
- Paleo without nuts
- Paleo without fish/seafood
- When to introduce potential “problem foods” like peanuts
An autism spectrum disorder? (Part 1, Part 2)
As always, if your kid has a serious disease, the first stop should be the doctor’s office. But there’s almost always a way to make it work with Paleo.
Hungry for more? No one post can do it all, so here are some other resources that might be helpful.
Nom Nom Paleo has a bunch of ideas for lunchboxes here.
The Paleo Parents blog has a bunch of good stuff.
Feeding Kids Paleo (Robb Wolf)
Raising your Kids on Primal Foods (Mark’s Daily Apple)
If you’re into podcasts, check out…
- The Paleo View, Episode 12: listener questions about kids
- The Paleo View, Episode 3: transitioning kids to Paleo
- The Paleo View, Episode 1: Paleo kids in school
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