More lean meat and fish and less junk food? The basics of the “paleo” meal plan sound pretty healthy. But can it give kids the energy they need to grow, play outside, and pay attention in school?
Before you put paleo food on their plates, there’s a lot more you should know about this meal plan.
What It Means to Be Paleo
The main idea of going paleo is to try to eat only the foods our ancestors ate thousands of years ago during the Paleolithic Age, such as:
- Lean meats
The foods that became popular when farming began about 10,000 years ago are off-limits. Those include:
- Grains like wheat and barley, which make up bread, pasta, rice, and more
- Beans and other legumes
- Dairy products
- Potatoes and other starchy vegetables
- Processed foods -- that means snacks like crackers and cookies as well as lunchmeat and frozen meals
Can Paleo Foods Fuel Your Child?
Some adults who “go paleo” say they’ve lost weight, lowered their blood pressure, or gotten other benefits from the meal plan.
Since it cuts out refined sugars, salt, and processed foods, Debra Nessel, a registered dietitian at Torrance Memorial Medical Center, says it can be “a huge improvement over the typical American diet.”
Kids are a different story. Their bodies and brains are still growing, and it takes many different types of healthy food to give them energy to play outside and pay attention in school. The paleo plan cuts out a lot of foods that they actually need.
Because of that, “many health professionals hesitate before recommending children and teens avoid what would otherwise be healthy foods, such as whole grains, beans, lentils, yogurt, and veggies like potatoes and tomatoes,” says Robin Foroutan, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
What Else Should I Know?
Paleo takes a lot of planning. Going to a friend’s house for dinner or grabbing a bite to eat on the way to soccer practice will become a lot harder. “It takes an awful lot of commitment to plan and stick to super restrictive diets like this for the long haul,” Nessel says.
Active kids will need to find fuel elsewhere. Complex carbs like whole grains give busy kids energy to get through their day. If your child’s not eating foods like brown rice or whole-wheat bread, she’ll have to fuel up with complex carbs from winter squash, root vegetables, and fruit, Foroutan says.
Too much meat may hurt your child’s health. Because the paleo diet focuses so much on meat, kids could end up getting more unhealthy saturated fat than they should.
What’s the Verdict?
Although this eating plan gets points for its focus on healthy, whole foods, experts don’t know for sure how good it is for kids. “There’s simply a lack of data on the paleo diet for teens and children,” Foroutan says.
A middle-of-the-road approach is probably a better way to go, she says. Help your child start to cut out processed foods and added sugars, while adding more healthy whole foods, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy.
Overall, the best lesson kids can learn is to think about the foods they choose to eat, and always go for the ones that will keep them satisfied and energized for longer.