If you’re a parent who loves the health benefits the keto diet brings you, you might wonder whether you should introduce it to your kids. But according to nutrition consultant Elizabeth M. Ward, “Kids need carbohydrates.” Which pretty much rules out the keto diet for kids.
When talking about whether a low-carb diet is safe for kids, it’s important to distinguish between the complex carbohydrates found in healthy foods like fresh fruits and vegetables and the simple ones found in baked goods and sodas. Limiting simple carbs won’t cause nutritional issues, but you should exercise caution when considering cutting out any of the former.
Because experts recommend that about 50% of the calories kids consume come from carbohydrates, the ratios of the keto diet just won’t work. “Limiting carbohydrates can put your kid at risk for developing deficiencies later in life,” said Marina Chaparro, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
When eating the keto diet, children may not get enough of vital nutrients, like fiber, vitamin C, magnesium, folate, and zinc.
What many fans of the keto diet don’t know is that it was invented as a treatment for epilepsy! In 1923,Dr. Russell Wilder at the Mayo Clinic developed what he called Ketogenic Therapy. The version Wilder pioneered, now known as the classic ketogenic diet, or classic keto, is the most strict of all the keto variations.
Classic keto calls for a 4:1 ratio, meaning you eat four parts of fat for every one protein and carb you ingest. This results in a macronutrient ratio of 90% calories from fat, 6% from protein, and 4% from carbs.
Ketogenic diets are still used to treat children with epilepsy—under the close supervision of medical professionals. At the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, they take a team approach that involves neurologists, dietitians, nursing staff, and social workers.
Children placed on the ketogenic diet are first admitted to the hospital to make sure they tolerate the dietary shift and safely enter ketosis. While the diet is being gradually introduced over four to five days, families are taught how to manage the diet to prevent nutritional deficiencies while preparing meals their kids will love.
Stephanie Clarke, a registered dietician and founder of C&J Nutrition, feels it’s important not to use weight-focused language when talking to kids about food. “We always advocate for a completely diet-free, weight-neutral approach when it comes to kids’ nutrition and eating,” said Clarke.
She finds that letting children explore food without categorizing certain options as “good” or “bad” helps them establish healthy eating patterns. Restrictive diets, even those backed by sound nutritional principles, may undermine your child’s self-esteem and increase the likelihood that they will develop disordered eating habits in the future.
But that doesn’t mean you should go in the opposite direction and let your kids skip dinner in favor of dessert! It’s all about balance and encouraging healthy choices.
While keto for kids is not a good idea, unless medically necessary and supervised by professionals, you can absolutely guide your children away from foods loaded with empty carbs and toward high-fat, high-protein options.
“I’ve always believed that my job as a parent is to teach my kids why it’s important to make your health a priority,” said Dr. Mindy Peltz, an expert in pediatric care and gut dysbiosis.
Steering your kids away from simple carbs like those found in cookies and muffins can lower inflammation and blood sugar. Instead of telling your kids they can’t eat certain things, though, try keeping the focus on what they could be eating more of—for instance, avocados, a plentiful source of healthy fats.
“Explain to them that their brains will love all the good fat they are eating,” said Peltz. “I teach my kids that if they have a big test coming up, they should increase their avocado and egg consumption, two of their favorite foods.”
There are plenty of benefits of the keto diet that have nothing to do with weight loss, and it’s perfectly fine to encourage your kids to make choices that will let them reap the benefits of eating more high-quality fats and proteins, as long as you make sure they’re still getting all the nutrients they need from carbohydrates, too.
To learn more about the ketogenic diet, click here.