Fad diets abound – and even diets that have a legitimate use for those with specific dietary or medical requirements are taking hold as mainstream eating options for families far and wide. What might be good for an adult looking to improve their health or lose a few pounds isn’t always good for a growing child, so parents looking to make a change in their eating habits need to be very cautious when researching whether or not to feed their kids a non-traditional diet.
Be Informed, Talk to Your Pediatrician
If you’ve decided to switch over to a paleo, gluten-free or a vegan or vegetarian diet, one of the first things you probably did was research how your lifestyle change would impact your life and your health. The second thing you probably did (or definitely should have done) was discuss it with your doctor – especially if you decided to involve your child in this decision.
Before deciding to make a change in your child’s eating habits, you should read about both sides of the fence: the good and the bad. For instance, there are horror stories of infants starving to death because of their parents’ insistence that they follow a vegan diet. However, older children have been known to thrive on vegan diets. It is essential to research a child’s nutritional requirements and discuss and formulate a solid foundation in dietary health with a nutritionist or pediatrician.
Different Nutritional Needs
Kids are not miniature adults: they have specific dietary needs. For example, they need more calories and carbohydrates. Vitamins, minerals and nutrient quantities are different for infants, babies and growing children. In short, kids need more of everything to help their growing bodies. A non-traditional diet usually doesn't provide all of those things. Knowing what your chosen diet is lacking and being able to offer that or supplement it in a form that works with your chosen lifestyle change is crucial to the health and safety of your children.
Do Non-Traditional Diets Create an Unhealthy Relationship with Food?
Another concern is that a non-traditional diet can easily create an unhealthy relationship with food with kids. This should be a cooperative decision with a child’s physician and you, as the parent, on how to frame the change in food. A mother who lives gluten-free due to medical issues would not want to tell their child that “cupcakes are bad” unless the child had a similar medical condition. Why set a child up for a life-long battle with cupcakes as the enemy if it’s not necessary?
Framing a non-traditional diet as a lifestyle change and explaining why you and your family eat the way you do, can go a long way in helping your child form a healthy relationship with their food. However, don’t forget that a strict adherence to a non-traditional diet can create feelings of guilt, especially if a child slips up and eats that cheeseburger or slice of pizza at a friend’s birthday party. Don’t ever make him or her pay for that.
Focus on Health, Not On Specific Diets
Whether your family eats paleo, Mediterranean, gluten-free or DASH, the focus should be on living a healthy lifestyle and making good choices, rather than losing weight or not being able to eat certain things.
For example, telling your child “We don’t eat bread because it makes us fat” is a bad way to frame a gluten-free diet. Explaining “We eat other grains because our bodies can process them better” is a great way to explain having to start a gluten-free diet to a child who has to avoid it due to medical reasons.
Giving your child the power to make choices about their food is important, too. You can offer up a variety of choices that fit your diet without endangering your child. By helping your child make healthy choices, you lessen the probability of a non-traditional diet harming your child.
Look at the Big Picture
For younger children, the nutritional picture is framed over a course of days rather than just one day. If your vegetarian toddler decides to only eat broccoli one day but gets his fruits, dairy and protein on another day of the week, don’t sweat it.
Older children need a more well-rounded dietary picture daily, and a sudden decision on their part to switch to a non-traditional diet can mask a true eating disorder. So too, can non-traditional diets be unhealthy. While a smart vegetarian is getting all the proper nutrients, it’s totally possible to be a vegetarian who consumes only corn chips and soda. But that’s not a good diet for anyone.
If you’re thinking of bringing your children up with a non-traditional diet, do your research and gather your resources, including consulting your family doctor or pediatrician. Keep an open and honest dialogue about food and making good choices. Don’t force your child to make a drastic cut back on foods that you might find personally unpleasant, but do introduce them to alternatives that are fun and interesting. As long as the lines of communication are open and the emphasis is on health and making healthy food choices, feeding your child a non-traditional diet may be a great decision.