Are Low-Carb Diets Unhealthy for Kids?
Yes, Say Some Experts, but That Shouldn't Mean More Cooking If You're on These Popular Plans
Feb. 13, 2004 -- Even if you're among the 10 million Americans currently on a low-carbohydrate diet, your children shouldn't be -- even if they are overweight. Experts tell WebMD that diets such as Atkins and South Beach can be unhealthy for growing kids, including those with growing waistlines.
"Low-carb diets are not a good choice for kids because children are nutritionally different than adults, and these diets are restrictive in many of the nutrients they need," says Joan Carter, RD, of the USDA-funded Children's Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine. "Growing children need more calcium than adults, and their tissues need vitamins and minerals that come from fruits, vegetables, and grains. With diets that restrict these and other important nutrients, it shortchanges kids in a way that can affect their growth and development."
Low-Carb Diets Can Affect Thinking
Besides robbing the body of key nutrients, low-carb eating plans can also impact thinking ability, explains Bruce Rengers, PhD, assistant professor of nutrition and dietetics at Saint Louis University. When a body is robbed of carbohydrates, the body draws its energy from ketones, a byproduct that results from breaking down body fat.
This process explains some of the dramatic weight loss that can be achieved with eating plans that restrict carbohydrate intake. "But ketones have a dulling effect on the brain," he tells WebMD. "Low-carb diets work by fooling the body to think that it's starving."
"Essentially, this quasi-starvation mode is not good for alertness, and it's certainly not good for children," adds Carter. "While these diets do work in the short-term for adults and can result in weight loss, there are better ways for children to lose weight."
How? Obviously, it's a good idea to limit their intake of "bad" carbohydrates such as overly processed snack foods, soda, and other high-calorie, low-nutrient fare. Beyond that, there's no need to prepare separate meals for the young'uns -- even if you're following a low-carb eating plan.
Put Nutrition First
"Just make sure your children get the nutrients they need," she tells WebMD. "Make sure they drink milk with their dinner, even if you shouldn't have dairy with these eating plans. If you're having a hamburger without the bun, make sure they have theirs with lettuce and tomato. By all means, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are important for children -- even if you're restricting them in your own diet."
Low-carb regimens such as the Atkins and South Beach diets restrict the intake of certain fruits, vegetables, and grains. But Stephen Sondike, MD, a spokesman for Atkins Nutritionals and director of a pediatric obesity program at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, maintains that the low-carb approach is safe and effective for children who need to lose weight.
He points to research he conducted, published last March in the Journal of Pediatrics, comparing the Atkins approach against a low-fat diet in teenagers for 12 weeks. "We found kids on the Atkins approach lost twice as much weight as those on a low-fat diet," he says.