Shout-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?
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.
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?
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:
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.