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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
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Put Nutrition First continued...

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.

"We do support the use of fruits and vegetables," Sondike tells WebMD. "We just believe the American diet is much too high in high-glycemic carbohydrates. We feel by lowering the amounts of those foods in meal plans, that's going to make everyone healthier."

But among the high-glycemic foods encouraged to be eaten sparingly in the Atkins plan -- if at all -- are oranges, bananas, potatoes, and other foods considered to be a good source of nutrition by other experts. High-glycemic foods raise blood glucose level quickly, which can lead to obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Meanwhile, potato and citrus growers have recently launched marketing campaigns to tout the nutritional benefits of their foods, in part because sales have dwindled because of the low-carbohydrate craze. Pasta manufacturers are expected to follow suit.

Some of these foods are frequently consumed by endurance athletes such as marathon runners to improve their performance.

"Carbohydrate loading is used by endurance athletes for a good reason -- it gives their bodies an extra storage of fuel so their performance increases dramatically," says Jim Bell, president of the International Fitness Professionals Association and a member of Florida's state-run obesity task force. "In full-grown adults, we know that restricting carbohydrates cuts down on athletic performance and endurance."

While most children don't run marathons -- especially those who are overweight -- Bell says he's concerned that low-carb diets can hurt their efforts to lose weight the old-fashioned way, with exercise.

"Carbohydrates provide energy, and without this energy, they probably can't exercise as well," he tells WebMD. "What's worse, in children going through a development process, there can be permanent inhibition in their reaching full genetic potential when an entire group of macronutrients is eliminated from the diet. It doesn't matter if it is fat, protein, or carbohydrates, it's just not healthy."

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