Whether for health or ethical reasons, nixing certain foods—or entire food groups—in favor of specific diet philosophies is more common than ever. But is it a good idea for kids? Here, three lifestyle diets gaining traction across the country, plus how to make them work for your family.
Alternatively called a caveman diet, a paleo diet means sticking to the types of foods our ancestors were programmed to eat, namely wild plants and game. Since most modern families don’t hunt and forage, that usually translates to lots of organic produce, grass-fed meats, and wild-caught seafood. Dairy is limited (some butter and cheese is allowed), while grains (even whole grains), legumes, and sugar are out, as paleo advocates say humans weren’t designed to eat the stuff. Research suggests paleo diets may help reduce diabetes risk and lower cholesterol. What’s more, an eating style high in natural and organic foods is lower in harmful pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics, which we already know is good for growing kids.
Make It Work: Despite its benefits, the limited menu can make a full paleo diet tough for kids, says Jackie Newgent, R.D., author of 1,000 Low-Calorie Recipes. You’re limiting entire food groups, and we don’t know what the long-term effects of not getting some of those nutrients are, she says. Rather than going full-on cave-man, try incorporating more paleo-style meals and snacks, like grilled free-range chicken with sautéed greens and baked sweet potatoes, or avocado halves sprinkled with sea salt and lime juice.
Vegan diets are 100 percent free of animal foods. That means no to meat, dairy, and eggs; and yes to whole grains, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and legumes and soy foods. Vegan diets tend to be high in fiber and nutrients and low in saturated fat, which may be why people who follow them tend to have lower body mass indexes, cholesterol levels, and hypertension rates compared to meat-eaters. And when planned, vegan diets can be nutritionally adequate for kids, says the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Make It Work: An animal-free diet could work for families, so long as you think ahead and stick to nutrient-rich fare (remember, potato chips and soda are vegan, too!). Without dairy products, it’s essential to incorporate other sources of calcium every day, like almonds and leafy greens, to give kids growing bones what they need, Newgent says. There’s also the issue of vitamin B12, which is notoriously scarce in plant foods. For kids and grown-ups eating vegan, a supplement or B12-fortified foods is essential.
A raw food diet consists mostly of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds that havent been heated over 118°F and can also include uncooked, sprouted grains and legumes. (A very small minority of raw foodists also consume raw dairy.) Advocates say raw foods contain beneficial nutrients and digestion-boosting enzymes that are destroyed when heated. That might be the case for some fruits and veggies, but there are others, like carrots and tomatoes, that research shows actually become more nutritious when cooked, especially with healthy fats like olive oil. Plus, It’s hard for growing kids to get all the nutrients they need on a totally raw diet, says Andria Barrett, a Toronto-based culinary nutritionist.
Make It Work: Eating more fresh fruits and veggies is a great thing, so incorporate them into your child’s diet wherever you can. Instead of eating things that are processed or refined, those foods are replaced by ones that are naturally higher in fiber and nutrients, Barrett says. In place of a snack bar or fruit snacks after school, try apple slices with all-natural, raw almond butter. At dinner, swap a side of mashed potatoes for peeled and sliced jicama.