The Paleo diet is followed by many in pursuit of and support for their wellness. A Paleo style of eating aims to steer dietary habits away from standard carb-heavy and processed food choices towards foods that are more common to those of ancient man (such as vegetables, meat, eggs, seafood, fruit, and nuts). This also means things such as gluten, grains, sugar, dairy, and legumes are generally excluded.
Having experienced the benefits of following a Paleo lifestyle, many parents are probably asking "is this safe for my kids"? Following a Paleo lifestyle leads to eating less sugar and other processed foods, and the result can be very healthy for both children and adults. It is safe to say that limiting sugars and feeding children unprocessed meals composed of animal proteins, vegetables, healthy fats, some fruits and nuts is not only healthy, but also safe and extremely beneficial to their growth and development.
Although there is no one “perfect diet” for kids any more than there is for adults, evidence suggests that a Paleo diet can be safe for kids. It is easy to meet any special nutritional needs of childhood with Paleo food, and it is even possible to get your kids to love their vegetables.
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"Children can get all the nutrition they need from a Paleo diet."
With this statement, there are always a few questions that arise.
Do Children Need Grains?
There are no known nutrients found only in grains.
Grains contain a little protein, and an array of vitamins and minerals. However, one serving of grains alone will do little to provide an adequate amount of nutrition. You would need to consume several servings several times a day to make a nutritional impact. Furthermore, there are no known nutrients found exclusively in grains and no nutrient deficiencies have been recorded unless the entire diet being followed was imbalanced and nutritionally void.
Grains contain anti-nutrients that actually are bad because they combine together with the nutrients from your other food, preventing your body from absorbing them. The inflammatory properties in grains can contribute to the manifestation of chronic inflammation and autoimmune diseases.
With the Paleo diet however, the array of vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds provide a ton of vitamins, minerals and fiber. They provide optimum nutrition along with anti-inflammatory phytonutrients (plant-based compounds) that work to increase your child's overall health, growth and development.
Many of today’s whole grain products are made with synthetic vitamins, particularly folic acid. This is a synthetic form of folate that is extremely dangerous as it can build up in the body overtime and become toxic rather than being digested or broken down. Instead of processed breads and cereals, consider feeding your child an abundance of foods containing folate. These include broccoli, asparagus, cauliflower, and collard greens. Vegetables are your friend and can give your child what his body needs.
Feed your children vegetables at every meal and they will get used to eating them! Meat and eggs are also excellent sources of nutrition, and provide a much larger amount of nutrients per serving than grains.
What About Carbohydrates?
Much of the resistance to feeding kids on a Paleo diet comes from the misconception that Paleo has to be low-carb. Paleo can be low-carb, high-carb, or moderate-carb.
For kids, the extreme end of the low-carb spectrum tends to be less than ideal. The ketogenic diet has been tested extensively in children and is very effective for treating medication-resistant childhood epilepsy. However, kids following this type of diet on the ketogenic diet routinely report very unpleasant side effects, especially gastrointestinal problems.
Further research on a more moderate carbohydrate approach has shown that children can safely eat fewer carbohydrates than recommended on a Standard Western Diet. This can fall well within Paleo guidelines.
If weight loss is a concern, it has also been shown that kids can lose weight no matter what percentage of their diet comes from protein, carbs, and fat.
Your child’s carbohydrate needs will probably vary depending on their growth, development and age. On average, the amount of carbs your child needs will go down as they get older (and this will be replaced by protein).
Determining your child’s carbohydrate needs may be challenging, but a great starting point would be to ensure that at each meal, at least 50-75% of the food on their plates are filled with fruit and vegetables (including plenty of starchy vegetables). In other words, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and fried plantains are your friends. You may be surprised at how much your children enjoy these whole, real foods!
How Can Children Get Calcium Without Dairy?
Calcium is particularly important for children.
This is always a touchy subject. While many Paleo enthusiasts are anti-dairy, there is also evidence that children need milk proteins until at least the age of 5. Supplementing your child’s diet with dairy may seem like a good idea (this is what would technically be referred to as a Primal, rather than Paleo philosophy).
However, commercially available pasteurized cow’s milk often contains gut irritants. If you are choosing to include dairy in your kids’ diets, stick to cultured dairies like whole milk, full fat yogurt and kefir. Ideally you would want to source yogurt from grass-fed cows, which is relatively easy to find these days. Your local farmer’s market may also be a place to source raw cheese from grass-fed cows. Goat’s milk and goat’s milk products are a good option as they tend to be less problematic. There are those who believe in feeding their children raw milk (again, ideally from grass-fed cows or goats). While the nutritional quality is higher and the milk contains many beneficial enzymes, the source of the raw milk is incredibly important, especially regarding the health of the cows.
If dairy is not an option for your child, due to choice or an allergy or intolerance, the nutritional benefits, especially the calcium, potassium vitamin A, D and K2 are still available in many Paleo compliant whole foods.
Including even more calcium rich sources from bones (bone-in salmon and sardines), bone broth (make your own or order Chef Pete’s organic broth from pastured animals) and leafy green vegetables can provide more absorbable calcium than that found in dairy. Children can have a well-rounded diet without milk.
Can Paleo Provide Enough Iron and Vitamin D?
Iron deficiency is more common in children struggling with their weight. The low-grade inflammation that being overweight creates, prevents them from absorbing and using the iron. Rather than increasing iron consumption, healing inflammation (through healthy weight loss and a low-inflammatory Paleo diet) is the best long-term solution.
Low Vitamin D status is a problem for anyone who spends significant time indoors. A child may be Vitamin D deficient even at a normal weight. The best source of Vitamin D is sunlight. A Paleo lifestyle encourages getting outdoors and playing!
Is Paleo Compatible With Allergies?
The Paleo diet can be relatively easily modified to be allergy-friendly for any child. The most common allergens in adults and kids are peanuts, soy, dairy products, and wheat, which are naturally excluded.
Paleo can also be modified to avoid other common allergens including tree nuts, eggs, sesame, and coconut. While it may take a little extra work to modify a Paleo diet, it is often easier to control these foods with a Paleo diet compared to the standard approach because most Paleo meals are derived from unprocessed food sources. Food processing with all the shared facilities and production lines can easily lead to contamination.
As always, if your kid has a serious disease, please consult with your health care professional.
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Fresh, Whole Foods Are Good For Everyone.
Real, whole, nutrient dense foods are good for kids for the same reasons that they’re good for adults:
- High in nutritional value (especially well-sources meats, poultry, fish and eggs)
- Low in gut irritants (which are as problematic for kids as adults)
- Lower in sugar resulting in less blood sugar spikes and the metabolic problems that ensue.
- Don’t contribute to inflammation (like adults, kids can develop diet-induced inflammation)