By Amy Bentley
Mom and Dad have decided to change their eating habits to lose weight. They plan to try one of the diets going around, maybe Keto, Whole 30, Paleo or perhaps embrace a vegetarian diet.
That’s all well and good — they’re grown adults. But, what about the kids? Should they also follow these diets, or do growing children need a more balanced diet that includes all the food groups? Should kids be dieting in the first place?
First of all, these diets vary widely and some are quite restrictive. The Ketogenic (Keto) diet, like the Atkins Diet, is a low-carb, high-fat and high-protein weight-loss diet. The idea behind the Paleo diet is to eat only the foods that humans ate during the Paleolithic era, such as fish, meat, nuts, seeds and fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s a high-protein diet without carbs, grains, dairy, sweets or processed foods. Vegetarian diets can also exclude fish, seafood, eggs and dairy. Vegans don’t eat those foods and focus on fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains, seeds and beans. And then there is Whole 30, the South Beach Diet and many others.
Janice Dada, MPH, RDN, CDE, a registered dietitian and owner of SoCal Nutrition & Wellness, a nutrition counseling and consulting practice in Newport Beach, says it’s important to explore the reasoning behind a specific way of eating.
“Some families are vegetarian because of religious reasons, some for other reasons. The context and reasoning matter,” she adds.
“A voluntary, transitory change in a way of eating with talk of food rules can have negative effects on a child’s relationship with food,” Dada cautions. “For a vegetarian or vegan family, at some point it may be necessary to involve the child in the food values decision making.”
Children can follow vegetarian and vegan diets and remain healthy as long as their parents are educated about what nutrients their kids could be missing and supplement them, says Vanessa Chrisman, RD, CSP, CLE, a clinical pediatric dietitian at Children’s Hospital of Orange County. Protein needs, for instance, can be met from eating foods other than meat including pasta, bread, beans, nuts, seeds and tofu, she says. Other important nutrients include Vitamins D and B12, Calcium, Iron, Zinc and Omega 3 fatty acids.
Ketogenic diets can be used as medical nutrition therapy to treat epilepsy. Other than that, Dada says, “Keto and Paleo diets are not appropriate for children. No diets are. They are restrictive, rule-based and unnecessary. If a parent is following such a diet, I would recommend that no part of the diet or its results be discussed in the presence of the child.
“In addition, if parents are speaking negatively about their bodies, that can influence the way children feel about their bodies as well,” Dada continues, adding that kids should never be put on a weight-loss diet because this increases the risk for eating disorders.
Chrisman sees many children whose parents are on Keto or Paleo diets, and the kids are too.
“Typically, the kids lose weight and are not growing well,” says Chrisman, who agrees that Keto and Paleo diets are not proper for youngsters unless medically necessary and supervised by an expert. “Restrictive diets can typically lead to more restrictive or unhealthy eating behaviors as kids get older. If the parents are dieting all the time, that’s not necessarily the healthy attitude toward food we want kids to see.”
Parents concerned about their child’s weight gain at any age should see their pediatrician or a registered dietitian who will consult the pediatric growth chart to determine if the child is following his or her curve, according to Chrisman and Dada.
“The pediatrician is the first line of defense about obesity at regular well checkups,” Chrisman says.
Dada notes that a child could be gaining weight in preparation for a growth spurt or in preparation for puberty; there also could be other developmental reasons for weight gain. Dada and Chrisman advise having a doctor or dietitian determine the reason and help families promote healthy eating and a healthy lifestyle.
Birthday parties and special diets
If your child is a dairy-free vegetarian or vegan and wants to attend a birthday party but the menu is a concern, the guest’s parents should contact the birthday child’s parents in advance and ask what is being served, advises Vanessa Chrisman, RD, CSP, CLE, a clinical pediatric dietitian at Children’s Hospital of Orange County.
If the lunch will be pepperoni pizza and cake, for example, the parents of the vegetarian or vegan child can send their child with an alternative food as an option.