Diets have been around for centuries. In 1820, Lord Byron, an English nobleman and highly-regarded British poet, initiated the Vinegar and Water diet. In the 1930’s, eating grapefruit with every meal became popular and was referred to as, yes, The Grapefruit Diet (otherwise known as the Hollywood Diet). Other notable diets have included Weight Watchers (1963), Cooke Diet (1975), Slim Fast (1977), Scarsdale Diet (1978), Dexatrim (1979), Fit for Life (1985), Atkins Diet (1992), Zone Diet (1995), and the South Beach Diet (2003).

Whether they work(ed) or not depends on who you ask but one thing remains true for all – diets like these  – the ones intended for adults – are not healthy or intended for children. As the World Health Organization1 states in its training program for health professionals, “Children are not little adults.” They have very special nutritional needs and feeding them an adult’s diet could result in malnutrition, illness or worse.

Popular adult diets in 2018
The most popular diets for adults in 2018, based on the number of internet searches, include the Raw Foods Diet, the Ketogenic Diet, and Whole30. Here are some of the pros and cons of each of them. None of them are healthy for children, with one exception.

The Raw Foods Diet: This diet is based on eating only raw fruits, vegetables and legumes such as lentils, beans and nuts. Food can be prepared by juicing, blending, dehydrating, soaking and sprouting. However, food is not allowed to be cooked. The diet is healthy in that it avoids processed foods and sugars. However, it is difficult to get all of the calories one needs for the day by eating raw foods only. Scientifically speaking, some raw foods are healthier than cooked foods and some are not. Nutrients can be cooked away in some and additional nutritional benefits can be observed in others. The Raw Food Diet does not allow meats, grains, pasteurized juices and dairy – all foods that are essential for the growth of children.

The Ketogenic Diet: This diet is based on eating high fat, low carb foods to create ketosis in the body, similar to the Atkins Diet. Ketosis is the state the body enters into in order to break down stores of fat. The diet is known to be good for those individuals who are interested in losing weight, or who want to lower blood sugar or insulin levels to control diabetes or prediabetes. It is also regarded as a good diet to control seizures in children with epilepsy.  However, the diet does not allow rice, pasta, cereal, fruit (with the exception of berries), legumes including peas, kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas, or root vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, and parsnips. Those foods hold high nutritional value for children and contain nutrients that contribute to their healthy growth.

Whole30: Participating in this diet is tracked on a 30-day schedule with the goal of supporting the body as it corrects nutritional imbalances and reduces inflammation. It eliminates processed foods, sugar, alcohol, grains, legumes, soy, diary and artificial sweeteners from one’s daily diet. The Whole30 diet does not allow grains of any types, legumes, nuts, soy, or dairy. As mentioned earlier, those foods contain nutrients that are essential to the healthy growth of a child’s teeth, skin, hair and bones.

Children require a balanced diet from all categories of the food pyramid
It may seem overly simplistic to say children need good food, but it’s true; they need a balanced diet of many types of good foods. Children need to eat foods from all the categories on the food pyramid; protein, grains, dairy, vegetables, fruit, and yes, healthy fats, to feed their growing bodies.

Children have what the World Health Organization2 calls a “dynamic developmental physiology”; in other words, they are actively building their bodies. For each pound of body weight, a child needs much more water and many more calories than an adult. For example, a child who is less than one-year old needs five times the calorie and water  intake than a person who is 50 years old. A child’s body also has a higher absorption rate3 and greater nutrient retention to fuel its rapid growth and development.

An extensive study on children and vegetarian diets, Infants and children consuming atypical diets: Vegetarianism and macrobiotics, published in the clinical journal Paediatrics & Child Health4 reported on the “deleterious effects” of those types of diets on children and reported:

  1. Children younger than two years of age who were fed vegetarian or vegan diets exhibited significant lower mean weight and length velocities and were overall lighter in weight and smaller in stature than reference populations.
  2. No catch-up growth in height occurred in macrobiotic children, which may indicate the existence of chronic nutritional deficiencies that do not allow for adequate catch-up growth
  3. Infants weaned onto macrobiotic diets were significantly slower in gross motor development, especially locomotion, and to a lesser degree in speech and language development.
  4. Major skin and muscle wasting occurred in 30% of macrobiotic infants.

The authors were careful to note that a “well-planned and carefully followed vegetarian diet can satisfy the nutrient requirements for infants and children” but that the adverse health effects were well documented.

Adult diets vs. children’s nutritional needs
If parents are following one of the aforementioned diets (Raw Foods Diet, Ketogenic Diet or Whole30 Diet), the ingredients in them are good for children, as well, but they need to be supplemented. The goal is to provide food for children’s rapidly growing bodies that are high in nutrition without being extremely high in calories. This requires selecting foods that are nutrient dense without necessarily being high in fat and sugars, although some are needed. The Centers for Disease Control Healthy Weight program provides a robust website full of information on children’s nutrition including tips for parents5, My Plate Kids Place6, and illustrated healthy choices7 and food guides.

For example, it’s quite ok to use the parents’ raw foods to make attractive after school snacks and salads at dinner. Add protein in the form of meat, chicken or fish to the child’s plate and cook some grains to accompany it. Make sure the child is consuming low-fat dairy products each day and teach them to eat reasonable portions of each food group. The parents on the Ketogenic Diet may not eat brown rice or whole wheat pasta along with their child, but the family will be able to eat together.

Children and low-carb diets
There are different types of carbohydrates:

  1. High calorie, low nutrition carbs like cupcakes, white bread, cookies and Twinkies
  2. Low calorie nutrition dense carbs like whole grains, fresh fruits, and dairy

Children do not need to eat high calorie, low nutrition carbs but they certainly need low calorie, nutritious ones. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics8 says that children need to eat the carbs contained in whole grains, fresh fruits and dairy. In fact, the group’s spokesperson, Marina Chaparro, MPH, RDN, LD, CDE, says that eating these foods “… is vital to their growth and development. Limiting carbohydrates can put your kid at risk for developing deficiencies later in life or, make them feel sluggish or cranky at school.”

Examples of foods that contain carbohydrates but are nutrient packed and portion controlled include:

  • A medium-size apple
  • A medium-size banana
  • 1 cup blueberries
  • 1 cup grapes
  • 1 cup carrots, broccoli, or bell peppers with 2 tbsp. hummus

ChooseMyPlate9 provides a daily food plan and a guide for preschoolers to ensure they are eating healthy foods in the right portions, including healthy carbs. Here is an overview of the guidelines:

Fruit: Serve fresh whole or bite-sized fruit such as apple or banana slices and fresh fruit juice in small amounts.
Vegetables: Think about serving a “rainbow” of colors that includes dark-green leafy vegetables, red tomatoes, sweet potatoes etc.
Grains: At least fifty percent of the grains a child eats – cereal, pasta, rice –  should be 100 percent whole grain
Protein: Teach your child to eat a variety of types of protein including meat, seafood, poultry and beans.
Dairy: Low-fat milk, yogurt and cheese are fine for a child’s nutritional needs and provides the calcium they need for growing bones.
Teach your child to drink water: Drinks like soda, fruit juice and sport drinks contain sugar and non-nutritious calories.
Limit high fat foods: Teaching children moderation helps them to develop good eating habits for the rest of their lives. Eating a small portion of sweets is better than restricting them completely, which may lead to overeating when they are available.

What’s the story with salt?
Salt, in moderation, is beneficial. It is an electrolyte that aids in the control of fluid balance, nerve transmission, and muscle function. However, we, as Americans, eat too much salt.

Pre-packaged foods, convenience foods, fast foods and even salad dressings are high in sodium. Most sources, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate10 to the World Action on Salt and Health11, recommend that sodium intake be reduced for people of all ages. It’s recommended that children aged 1 to 3 years old eat less than 1500 milligrams of salt each day and children aged 4 to 8 eat less than 1900 milligrams. Ways to watch the intake of salt include:

  • Compare sodium content for similar foods, such as cans of soup, using the food label
  • When choosing prepared or canned food products, select ones that are labeled “no salt added” or “low sodium”.
  • Use minimal salt when cooking at home
  • Rinse canned foods before using

Whether or not you add salt to your diet is a personal decision. Check with your child’s pediatrician to discuss his or her dietary needs at any given age.

We carry age old food messages
The overabundance of food in the developed world is the main cause of obesity and overweight people, which has led to widespread, unhealthy obsessions with diets and losing weight. As human beings, we may be the victims of our own track record with food. One clinical study12 titled “Parental Influence on Eating Behavior” summarized the problem; “For the vast majority of human history, food scarcity has constituted a major threat to survival, and human eating behavior and child feeding practices have evolved in response to this threat.” It seems that we have long memories as human beings and the threat of food scarcity still informs our attitudes and practices with food, which may lead to overeating and being overweight.

When it comes to diets and a parent’s influence on their children’s attitudes toward food, it’s worth reading what the study authors have to say:

The first five years of life are a time of rapid physical growth and change and are the years when eating behaviors that can serve as a foundation for future eating patterns develop. During these early years, children are learning what, when, and how much to eat based on the transmission of cultural and familial beliefs, attitudes, and practices surrounding food and eating. Parents and caregivers play a vital role (sic) in structuring children’s early experiences with food and eating, and these experiences are linked to children’s eating behavior and their weight status.

It’s safe to say that regardless of what diet plan you follow as an adult, your child will need more food. There is a certain level of nutrition for children that must be followed to safeguard their healthy, normal growth. Adults may need to lose weight, but children need to thrive, and that is where health and food must be balanced.