What about kids on LCHF?
This blog was inspired by a question/objection to LCHF from my friend Stuart: “Don’t growing kids need a rich and varied diet when they are growing?”
I couldn’t agree with you more Stuart. Let’s cover this in two parts, the rich and the varied separately.
Rich: Yes, kids like all humans respond well to a nutrient dense diet. I am advocating a nutrient dense diet full of fibre, and whole foods full of micronutrients. Children, like adults, should eat until they are satisfied. Their food should be based, like adults, on primal principles. In other words, the starting hypothesis for the diet that children thrive on should be based in evolutionary biology, not what the modern food supply is.
The reality is that we have had 100,000 generations of humans who have successfully bred, raised off spring, and bred again on diets full of whole foods, often high in fat and low in carbohydrates. There is still no evidence that diets high in carbohydrates are essential for optimal human growth and development.
Yet, there is a widespread belief that carbs are absolutely essential for children’s growth and development. Especially as a source of dietary fibre and other “essential nutrients” (usually not specified what these actually are). A recent article in the Guardian reported on Gwyneth Paltrow’s children being on a low carb eating pattern. It was interesting to see a variety of reactions to this approach. At one end there were the dietitians claiming that the children would be at health risk because of the absence of the vital carbohydrates. And that they would no longer be able to think clearly and this would affect brain functioning. Others, with a more balanced view in my opinion, note that from an evolutionary biology perspective there is no reason children shouldn’t flourish under these sorts of whole food conditions.
We certainly need more research in this field with kids. If the adult data are anything to go by, then children should flourish under a diet that more closely resembles that of our ancestors.
Varied: Do you mean that refined carbohydrates offer a healthy variation? If so, no I disagree. These are not part of a rich and varied diet. Can they eat them now and then? Yes, like some adults, that is probably OK. Metabolically healthy children are highly insulin sensitive. They will spontaneously react to swiftly remove carbohydrate from their blood. This is what a sugar high is in its extreme in children – the body reacting to remove carbohydrate from the system by all means possible. I feed my children carbohydrates in higher quantities than I eat them. Heck I even give some of them wheat products. Sugar, yeah that too sometimes. But my children are metabolically healthy and will deal with it. They will need to modify this as they age into middle and older adulthood, as it is inevitable that they will become less carbohydrate tolerant.
By metabolically healthy I mean a normal weight. It’s not normal to be a fat kid. I mean normal blood glucose, I mean normal motivation to be active, I mean normal physical skills appropriate to age. I also mean normal blood pressure, normal liver, and good lipid profiles. Many children in our society aren’t in this state and it’s not their fault. Being obese as a child, according to some researchers, has about the same effect on quality of life as having cancer as a child. It’s no fun for the child. They know it, we know it. Let’s start talking about it.
As Dr Robert Lustig says, “But the kicker here is that fat kids don’t get sugar highs. They just reach for another cookie”. In other words, a high carb diet in a metabolically dysregulated child is not OK. It’s not because they are the same as a metabolically dysregulated adult. Children now have fatty livers, insulin resistance and diabetes because of the food, mostly sugar, they are being fed. Is this because they are gluttonous sloths? No, it’s not their fault. It’s no ones individual fault. It’s the fault of the food industry, poor government regulation, poor nutrition research, and poor public health recommendations. For fat kids it’s not OK to keep stuffing down the carbs. That won’t help and if sugar especially is involved, the problem will probably only get worse.
It’s worth watching Dr Lustig’s “Sugar the Bitter Truth” lecture on youtube. Its great and the first medical endocrinology lecture to go viral. For the technically minded geeks, his address at the ancestral health symposium is even better.
Lustig has clearly made a decision to, publicly at least, attack sugar as the demon in childhood obesity. Most would agree that is probably the best place to start, especially nutrient-poor sugary drinks. However, the obvious next logic in his arguments must extend to processed and other rapidly absorbed carbohydrates.
Are we ready for this next step in our society? I am.
OK, I’m ranting, maybe raving now I think. But did I make the point? Rich is good. Varied doesn’t mean refined sugar and carbs to be “balanced”, especially if you are in metabolic trouble.
So what do my kids eat?
I am the first to admit I’m not a perfect parent, even when it comes to diet. In fact, that seems to be quite a hard part of parenting. That said, we have switched things around from what I would say is conventional eating in our family and it’s going fine.
The reality is that my kids are not on a LCHF diet. They eat mostly whole foods, mostly good quality meats and fats, mostly wheat free, with a dose of the foods all kids get exposed to these days. Is sugar good for them? I doubt that it does much good. On the other hand they are insulin sensitive and deal with it pretty well. So no worries.
In fact that’s a point for the whole LCHF thing. What I am advocating in general is that high carbs affect some people adversely. Paradoxically, these are the people who are most vulnerable to obesity and metabolic syndrome. That’s not my kids and it may not be you, now at least. As we all get older we will probably tolerate carbs less well. Some kids may even be in this category and you’d have to approach their eating with a little more rigor than I do.
Here’s how it goes for the kids in my house 90% of the time
- out: cereal, skim milk, toast and spreads, fruit juice, sugar
- in: eggs, bacon, all fruit, yogurt, smoothies with full fat milk and berries
- out: sandwiches, processed muesli bars, chips
- in: cooked meat, fruit, cheese, yogurt
- Fried rice with vegetables, eggs, yogurt, cookies (yes I know but that’s the way it goes), fruit, milk
- Whatever we are having, which is typically meat, fish and vegetables or salad and some sort of high fat dessert (e.g. cream and berries).
Do they buy chocolate bars, soda, and other sweets? Yes they do. Do I support it? Sometimes, but mostly not. Remember, a treat is only a treat when it is not all the time. It’s an imperfect world and we’re doing what we can.
Looking back I regret giving my kids juices… Did not realise even the natural lines were full of sugar… Water would have been better.. But I did keep them away from coca cola etc!!!
Great post Grant! It’s all about practical wisdom (phronesis) – and our kids need great food to excel. Keep posting!
Bigger issue for me is getting my wife to “get it”, then translating that over to what the kids eat. School lunches for them are sandwiches, chips, crackers, fruit. There is a psychological component to this in many respects too – I think its hard as an adult when you haven’t been health conscious your whole life, look in the mirror every day and wonder why you’re getting fatter, and dealing with the challenge that everything you thought you knew about nutrition (ie carbs being required) was completely false and supported by bad science. Especially when you yourself got filled with carbs as a child. Yet at the same time stress that “moderation” is the key (it’s a popular catch phrase), when you don’t even really know what moderation is because you don’t read labels on everything and you don’t measure quantities.
Getting those around you to even be receptive to changing their mindset is a massive challenge. That’s why we shouldn’t expect the obesity epidemic to abate any time soon, even though the knowledge of LCHF efficacy is out there. Changing the collective mindset takes time.
Yes its hard and I have seen this dozens of themes. They will change and be even more of a champion when they do!
As a parent of two young children, I find it a challenge to explain to people who occasionally care for our kids that we eat LCHF, and that sugar is not something that’s a part of our diet. What do you answer when someone asks you: “Why don’t you eat sugar/carbs?” I find it a challenge to formulate an answer to this that doesn’t come across as judgmental or offensive. After all, sugar/sweets are associated with love/care in the minds of so many people.
Good point – we don’t ban carbs and sugar – we just don’t eat them every single day. A treat is defined as something you might have every now and then. We stick to low carbon general, sometimes my kids have a treat. Love also isn’t about giving kids toxic substances!!!
Would you agree that lchf in kids stunts growth? (with evidence that there is also family history of growth problems?
No evidence that a lack of carbs in youth stunts growth – look at indians of the great plains last century on low carb who were massive stong men – same for recent evidence about our paleolithic ancestors who were big and strong
Good article. Using it to make informed choices about my little type 1 diabetic child. One point though… could you please, please, please change the word diabetes in your article to type 2 diabetes? There is already so much confusion and judgment related to this condition. Type 2 is caused by diet and lifestyle choices. Type 1 is an autoimmune conditto in which the immune system mistakenly attacks insulin producing cells. I’m sure you already know this, but as I said, the distinction is very important in the type 1 community.