Pint-sized Paleos: Why a Paleolithic Diet is Healthy For Your Children

Portrait of a pretty little girl biting an appleShout-out to all parents or future parents- this one’s for you! Are you following a Paleo/real food diet but concerned about transitioning your children to something similar? What specific concerns do you have? Perhaps you’re worried that they won’t get enough in the way of vitamins or nutrients, affecting growth and development? Maybe you’re concerned they’ll go hungry because they refuse to eat the foods you prepare? Is it the social aspect you’re worried about? Don’t want your kid being the freak that can’t eat cake at a birthday party? I get it. These are all valid concerns that will be addressed here. We will also discuss several fantastic resources to aid in the transition and produce some happy, healthy pediatric Paleos.

We see a wide variety of patients in our office, including children. Lately, during routine well-child checks, I have been asked the same question by a number of parents: “I’m considering starting the whole family on a Paleo diet, but I’m worried it won’t work for my kids. Is it safe for children to eat this way?” The overall answer is absolutely, yes it is, but let’s talk details. First, remember that all people of all ages have been eating a real food diet for millions of years. Do you think cave parents fixed themselves a big slab of meat and foraged fauna only to pull out a canister of rice puffs from behind a rock for their babies to munch on?

Not for cave-baby consumption.

Children were fed generally the same foods as adults for most of human history. Regarding nutrients, we all know that a whole foods diet is the most nutrient dense approach to eating. Parents are often concerned that a diet without fortified cereal grains will be nutrient deficient.  Remember though, as grains and legumes have anti-nutrient containing phytates, these foods actually rob your children of the nutrients in the healthy foods you manage to sneak into their diets! All the dinnertime fights of “EAT YOUR VEGETABLES or you’ll SIT THERE ALL NIGHT!” are pointless if other foods are sucking the phytonutrients right out of their little bodies.

Also, if you choose to go true-blue Paleo, this eliminates or greatly reduces dairy intake: some have an inflammatory response to dairy and do not tolerate it, requiring its elimination. So where’s a kid to get calcium for strong, healthy bones and teeth? Even without dairy, adequate dietary calcium can be obtained from several green vegetables with some fat to aid in absorption. And an even better way to build healthy bones? Eat bones! (Okay, that’s intense.  Bone broth is a less crunchy viable option). The bottom line is, a Paleo diet will provide a broader range of nutrients for your little munchkins than a sugar-laden fortified cereal fest. And as an added benefit, there is research suggesting that eating a real food diet can treat and even prevent common childhood diseases such as allergies, eczema, ADHD, depression, and viral illness. This makes for reduced frequency of snot bubbles, tummy aches, uber-meltdowns, and avoidance of homework for anything SHINY! Sound good to you?  Here is an interesting testimonial regarding a child whose symptoms related to autism greatly improved on a Paleo diet.

What about the picky factor? Will children willingly eat this way? Though it may take some experimentation and patience, the number of tantrums should start to decrease with time. Several parents that blog in the Paleosphere recommend starting with transition foods; for example, making pancakes and breads out of nut flours instead of gluten-containing store-bought products. That way, your kids won’t feel deprived and your sanity is preserved. How much should they be eating, you ask? Allow them to eat until they are full: children are so much better at gauging this than adults. If they end up losing weight, try incorporating more carbohydrates and fats into the diet.

Speaking of macronutrient breakdown, should kids be on the same type of Paleo diet as you are? Many of our adult patients follow a low-carb approach for weight maintenance and blood sugar regulation, but children need more in the way of carbohydrates. Kids are growing, developing beings. Don’t shy away from starchy vegetables and fruit for the little ones, as long as they get in plenty of protein, healthy fats, and green vegetables as well.

“I got a rock…”

Now, be honest- are you worried your kid will be the awkward one at parties? That they’ll have to wear a Charlie Brown-esque ghost costume because it’s too embarrassing to ask for fruit over candy at Halloween? Of course every situation is different, but if your child doesn’t have food allergies, it may be worth it to let them eat what the other kids are eating at major social events. One day here and there of junk food won’t cause too much harm (other than a sugar crash which is bound to be SUPER FUN for all involved) and, chances are your kids won’t eat a ton of it anyway because it won’t taste like the foods they’re used to. I recently met a very cool Paleo kiddo who wrinkled her nose in disgust at the mention of store-bought cake because it doesn’t compare to Mom’s homemade Paleo treats. Real food is cool.

What about babies? Almost everyone, mainstream medicine or not, can agree that breastfeeding is the best source of nutrition for babies less than 1 year of age. Breast milk consists of approximately 40-60% carbohydrate, 30-40% fat, and 5-10% protein, and as it provided most of the nutrition for babies and young children for millions of years, many feel this is the approximate nutrient ratio we should strive for in this age range. Breast milk also passes on healthy microflora (i.e. good bacteria) to populate your baby’s gut and antibodies to help build his little immune system. What if your children are adopted, or you are unable to breastfeed? Should you feed them this instead?

Infant formula

 

Um, no thank you! You can actually make a much higher quality formula: check out these recipes on the Weston A. Price site. (Note: many of these recipes call for unpasteurized dairy. The use of raw dairy is something everyone should research prior to purchasing, including safety practices of the dairy farm of interest. Some of the recipes on the Weston A. Price site do not use raw dairy, however.) When should you incorporate solid foods, and which are the best to start with? Most pediatricians in the U.S. continue to recommend rice cereal as the first solid food to introduce around 4-5 months of age, but this is a poor choice. Infants have very low levels of amylase, which is an enzyme responsible for breaking down carbohydrates. Perhaps a better choice is a lightly cooked egg yolk with high quality grass-fed beef liver. I know it sounds crazy, but babies need healthy fats for brain development, which is why these nutrient dense, fatty foods are so important. Around 6-7 months, you can start introducing some pureed fruits and vegetables, such as banana, winter squash, sweet potatoes, or avocado. Around 9-10 months, pureed meats are a great option. And finally, when those teeth start to really break through, the diet can be advanced further to what the family is eating. The Healthy Home Economist has a video on how to prepare baby’s first solid foods here and The Paleo Mom has several tips and great articles on how to feed your infants and children a real food diet. She even has a new article up on going back to school, Paleo style!  Check it out!

Finally, the last little tidbit regarding the transition to a Paleo diet for children is to involve your children in the process. If they are given a very select group of options to choose from, most likely they’ll pick something: “Would you like celery with almond butter, sweet potato fries, or grapes?” Involving them in the shopping and cooking will make them much more likely to try new things, and putting a positive spin on everything always helps. “Let’s pretend we are superheroes looking for foods that makes us SUPER STRONG and helps us to have SUPER POWERS at the GROCERY STORE!  AND WE’RE OFF!  Yaaaayyyy!!!!!!” (Too much?) Finally, making miniature foods or fun shapes with cookie cutters provides a child-sized, special option: mini burgers or Sponge Bob-shaped apple slices, anyone?

And if you need a few more resources, here are a few more I enjoy:

Chris Kresser’s Healthy Baby Code

Paleo Plan

Paleo Diet Lifestyle

Transitioning children to a Paleo diet may not be easy initially, but it is absolutely doable. Feel free to bring the kids in for a check-up and we can discuss any further questions or roadblocks you may encounter! If you do stumble a bit, just remember what a fantastic foundation you’re setting your kids up with for healthy, happy lives.

Karen De Coster Paleo-Primal Beef Bone Broth

~Erynn

  • E.H.

    Read Paleo Fantasies. It’s a great book.

  • Eric CO

    You have a wealth of information Erynn for any parent that is looking to transition their child(ren) into a paleo-centered lifestyle.

    We have a 3yo and 1.5yo who both have grown up with a paleo focus of probably 75% of the time. I say 75% of the time, and I can’t stress this enough to other parents, we have to understand what we can control and what we can’t. Here is just a small sample of what we’ve dealt with in the past and present and what we’ve done to find work-arounds.

    1. Daycare- this was a huge deal for me to get past, because no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t really control what my children consumed during the entire day. Each morning drop off is full of cereal offerings for breakfast and simple carbs for snacks throughout the day. Nothing really any parent can do to make a child not want a snack of this sort with friends. My work-around was to focus on what I could control and that was to make sure my kids had a good breakfast option before they went to school. I wake up every morning and cook breakfast, Eggs, sausage, bacon, banana pancakes, sweet potato hash, organic apple sauce, avocado even occasional Lara bars are staples for us.

    2. Family/Friends- Same as the daycare scenario as a parent I can’t control what my kids eat when they’re with friends or family. G’ma wants to take the kids to Chucky Cheese or McDonald’s; that’s fine. Friends mom gives them Oreos as a snack; not a problem. We realized that our kids eat really well at home and they already understand that they don’t get those treats at home so it’s more of a treat and I believe not a detriment to their overall health at all.

    3. Treats/Snacks- In your post you stated that some call these “transition foods”, but truth be told, items such as pancakes, cupcakes, macaroons, fruit bars, gluten free cookies, etc. are still consumed by our kids. I mean kids are kids and should have the same access to treats/snacks, just in a healthier manner. I’d rather them want an almond flour pancake over one made from Buisquick or a Green & Black’s 85% Dark Chocolate square over a Snicker’s. I have fond memories of my childhood sitting on my dad’s lap eating cocoa puffs. If I can be apart of the same memories while providing a much better alternative- I’m all for it!

    Being a Paleo-parent requires dedication, planning and imagination and it’s well worth it. And with the massive amount of resources (many you listed I’ve used hundreds of times) for parents to find inspiration, ideas and support today there’s really no reason not to try.

    EL

    • Erynn

      Thanks for your input, Eric! So great to hear from a parent who’s actually raising Paleo kids. I absolutely agree that there are things you can and things you cannot control, and it sounds like your family has found a good balance!