Many people find that they respond well to a specific diet. But experts at Boston Children’s Primary Care Alliance warn against specialized diets in children. (Image: Adobe Stock)
Every day, millions of people follow specialized diets for a myriad of reasons. These may include religious or ethical beliefs, allergies or sensitivities, or meeting individual health goals. Whether it’s vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, paleo, or “clean eating,” food styles can be different everywhere.
While diets like this and countless other health and wellness benefits, most target adult physiology and require significant time, financial and emotional commitment. So, what happens when you start a new feeding regime but have young, growing mouths to feed? In other words, if you follow a specific diet, should your kids follow it too?
We spoke with experts from Lexington Pediatrics and Bridgewater Pediatrics of Boston Children’s Primary Care Alliance about how families can cope with different nutritional needs.
Every body is different
“Many people find that their bodies respond well to a specific diet like keto or dairy-free,” says Dr. Justin Sweder of Lexington Pediatrics. “Many people say that eating in some way gives them more energy, helps them sleep, improves their mood and helps control their weight. But be very careful when applying specialized diets to children.”
dr. Sweder suggests letting your kids taste as many different foods as possible to learn how food makes them feel.
“Children are constantly learning how food affects them. As they get older, they will inevitably develop their own food preferences and hopefully find a way of eating that suits them best.”
Dr Justin Sweder, Lexington Pediatrics
In addition, denying your child an entire category of food can cause frustration in the future because they are less able to embrace or tolerate different types of food.
Restricting foods in your child’s diet also carries physical risks. For example, a ketogenic diet (keto), first developed in the 1920s as a treatment for epilepsy, is not recommended for most children because it severely restricts carbohydrates.
Children typically need 135 grams of carbohydrates per day (about 45 to 65 percent of their daily calorie intake) to be mentally and physically active, but the keto diet limits carbohydrates to about 20 to 30 grams per day.
“Children generally benefit from a diet that includes a variety of foods, including whole-grain carbohydrates, to help them grow and develop and perform everyday tasks such as homework and sports,” says Dr. sweder.
“Research shows that the more flavors children — and especially babies — are exposed to, the more likely they are to eat a variety of foods when they’re older,” says
dr. Julianne Walsh, Pediatric Nurse at Bridgewater Pediatrics. “This includes various meats and proteins, dairy products and spices. Start with sensory qualities, such as how it looks, is it soft or crunchy, spicy or mild, hot or cold. Once solid foods are introduced into a baby’s diet, I usually encourage families to methodically introduce plenty of variety while continuing to monitor for allergies.
“Babies should not have honey before they are one year old,” advises Dr. Walsh, because of a higher risk of botulism in babies under 12 months of age.
Communication: an important ingredient
“Often, however, diets represent religious or ethical values. In these cases, communication is key,” Dr. Walsh says. “It’s important to share with your kids why a particular diet — say vegetarianism — is a choice for your family,” she says.
Communication is also important when a family member has an allergy, intolerance or other medical problem that requires understanding how to avoid the food, including possible cross contact with an allergen.
“Food sensitivities can be a great opportunity to discuss the importance of respecting others and embracing differences,” says Dr. walsh. She encourages families to allow non-allergic children to try different foods whenever possible in a safe and regulated environment.”
Ultimately, as a parent, you play a vital role in shaping your children’s eating habits and attitudes toward food. You also have a responsibility to enable them to form their own relationship with food and how it fuels their bodies.
“I encourage parents to let their children experience a wide variety of healthy, unprocessed foods, and above all not to pressure them on how much of something they eat. A child ‘eating your plate’ does not encourage them to listen to their internal signals,” says Dr. Sweder. “We want to empower them to make healthier choices in the long run, especially because they chose to, not because Mom or Dad says so.”
Boston Children’s Alliance practices provide a variety of resources to educate and help families create and access healthy meal options.
Find a practice near you.