The Paleolithic diet is an eating style designed to mimic what our pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer ancestors ate—yes, the "cavemen" (or cavewomen). The diet is heavy on organic proteins like grass-fed beef, wild-caught fish and nuts. It excludes dairy, legumes, grains and sugar. It helps reduce your dependence on processed convenience foods, but it also excludes some healthful food options, like whole grains and legumes.
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As more parents shift their plates from pizza and pasta to prehistoric, the question becomes, "Should my kids eat this way, too?" Read on to learn why raising "cave babies" on a paleo diet might not be the best idea, despite the diet's health claims.
The rationale behind the paleo diet is that humans' digestive tracts are not evolved to tolerate foods from modern agriculture. This, proponents say, is leading to many of the chronic diseases seen in Western societies today—obesity, type 2 diabetes, cancer and digestive conditions.
The paleo diet is a high-protein, high-fiber, low-carbohydrate diet that allows grass-fed meats, seafood, fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, nuts and seeds, and healthy oils. This may sound like a good base for healthy eating, but it's important to note that key healthy food groups are eliminated.
Cereal grains, legumes, dairy, refined sugar, processed foods and refined vegetable oils are not allowed. We can only get behind eliminating some of this list. Indeed, whole grains and legumes are great sources of fiber, vitamins and minerals, and dairy foods provide protein and calcium and can help your body better absorb nutrients. Cutting back on refined sugar is a step that public health and nutrition experts agree on, especially since most of us are getting too much.
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American children consume an average of 19 teaspoons of added sugar each day—triple the recommended limit. They also consume an average of 3,300 mg of sodium per day—1,000 mg over the recommendation. Excessive sugar intake is linked to obesity and cardiovascular disease, and too much sodium can lead to high blood pressure, even in children. Helping kids cut back on processed foods and refined sugars can reduce their risk of chronic diseases and improve their overall health.
Studies have shown that following the paleo diet can improve blood pressure and glucose tolerance in healthy adults and can improve blood sugar control and cholesterol in adults with type 2 diabetes. Few to no studies have been done on children following the paleo diet, but doctors do recommend that children limit their intake of added sugars and extra salt. Eating a paleo-style diet can help kids cut down on their added sugar and sodium intake.
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Avoiding entire food groups leads to a dieting mentality. This mindset categorizes foods as "good" or "bad" and can ultimately lead to restriction of the "bad" foods. Dietitians warn about the dangers of teaching children that some foods are forbidden.
Sally Kuzemchak, M.S., R.D., of Real Mom Nutrition, says, "I don't think children should go on any kind of restrictive diet that cuts out food groups or long lists of foods unless it's medically necessary, such as with food allergies or celiac disease. Restriction can feel like deprivation to children, who may end up sneaking food or overeating those 'forbidden' foods when they have access to them. That does not set up your child for a positive, healthy relationship to food."
Restriction can only last so long, too. Eventually adults and kids alike swing to the other side of the pendulum and may overeat or binge on the foods they restricted. This often leads to guilt and shame and the cycle continues.
"Placing any child on a 'diet' that restricts certain foods can promote an unhealthy relationship with food and body weight for life," says Erin Palinski-Wade, R.D., C.D.E., author of 2-Day Diabetes Diet.
And not only will kids feel foods are restricted—they'll be missing out on key food groups like whole grains, dairy and legumes which provide essential nutrients their growing bodies need. Kids also need to be kids—why should they (or you) worry if they have pizza and cake once in a while in addition to veggies, fruits and protein?
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The paleo diet also forbids grains, legumes (beans, tofu, lentils, peanuts) and dairy. Strict advocates also don't consume potatoes. Paleo advocates claim these foods are unhealthy for various reasons.
The first argument is that they were not part of our paleolithic ancestors' diets. Second, they claim grains, legumes and dairy products cause inflammation and/or digestive issues. While this is true for some people, it is not true for everyone. Further, whole grains and legumes are full of fiber and protein and associated with a reduced risk of many diseases, including cardiovascular disease and cancer, according to numerous studies.
Children should not eliminate these food groups, not only because it's restrictive, but also because they would miss out on important nutrients for growth and development.
"Many of the foods eliminated on a paleo diet provide nutrients children need, including carbohydrates, which are the body's primary energy source; calcium, which is important for bone growth and development; folate, needed for cell growth and development and found in whole grains; and fiber, which is important for bowel regularity, which can be an issue for many children," says culinary nutrition expert, and mother of twin girls, Jessica Levinson, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N., founder of Small Bites by Jessica.
Avoiding grains and legumes also eliminates a significant amount of complex carbohydrates from children's diets.
"Kids metabolize carbohydrates four times as fast as adults, meaning their bodies burn through them more rapidly for energy," says Kayla Rillie, R.D., of Nutrition Intuition. "Protein and fats can be used for energy. However, they have more important jobs to do in developing children so they shouldn't be wasted on energy, as carbs are the easiest and most preferred source of energy for the body."
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If you are following the paleo diet, ask yourself why. Is it because you want to lose weight, improve overall health or eat more whole foods? If so, consider doing these things without following a "diet." Buy more fresh fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains, and cut back on processed foods. Allow your kids to have sugary foods in moderation, and eliminate convenience and packaged foods, which are often sneaky sources of added sodium and sugar.
Labeling foods as "bad" or keeping them from your children will likely lead to them wanting more. It could also induce disordered eating behaviors. If you want to continue eating paleo, your kids can certainly take part in some of it. Just don't greatly restrict their diet; allow them to eat any healthy foods they like, regardless of your own diet.
"Foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and lean proteins are great options for both kids and parents alike on any diet or lifestyle," Levinson says.
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"Diets don't work for adults, and they certainly do not work for children," Palinski-Wade says. "Putting your child on a diet can set them up for a lifelong battle with weight, as well as an unhealthy relationship with food."
"If you feel like your kid needs to diet," Rillie says, "it's best to promote the foods that they can eat, rather than giving them a list of foods that they shouldn't eat."
Focus on creative and delicious ways to add more fruits and vegetables to all meals. Emphasize eating a variety of foods, such as produce, dairy, legumes, grains, meat and even sugary treats. Focus on whole foods instead of specific nutrients, and teach your children that fruits, vegetables and lean proteins fill you up, give you energy and make you feel better. Work with a registered dietitian if you need more guidance on feeding your children.
Also consider how your children are eating in addition to what they are eating.
"Focus on mindful eating, such as eating at the table as a family without distractions like phones and TV," Palinski-Wade says, "eating slowly and getting in tune with the body's satiety signals, versus eating just because food is there or tastes good."
Buy more fruits and vegetables and fewer processed foods, but teach your kids that all foods can fit into a healthy eating pattern. Avoid labeling foods as "good" or "bad" and using words like "diet," and talk to your doctor or a dietitian if you think your child needs to change his or her eating habits.