March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
Low-carbohydrate eating plans continue to be popular. And while there is no official definition of a low-carb diet, most advise curbing or eliminating some or all grains, fruits, legumes and vegetables. Preteens and adolescents may be particularly interested in trying carbohydrate-restricting diets due to the promised weight loss. Or, maybe an older relative is following a new diet and you're wondering if it's healthy for kids to do the same. Get the lowdown on low-carb eating for kids.
Kids Need Carbohydrates
Experts recommend that about half of the calories children and adults consume come from carbohydrates. Abundant in nutritious foods including grains, fruits, vegetables, milk and yogurt, carbohydrates are the body's preferred energy source.
Low-Carb Eating for Kids: The Upside
Carbohydrates are also found in foods such as sugary beverages, candy and baked goods. According to Jill Castle, MS, RDN, limiting these kinds of carbs is fine. "You don't need those foods to be healthy," she says, "and kids eat too much of them anyway." Extra calories from any source, including added sugars, may contribute to overweight and obesity when not balanced by physical activity.
What's Bad about Low-Carb Diets for Kids?
While your preteen or high schooler may look like an adult, his or her needs for certain nutrients are higher than yours, and drastically decreasing carbs may be asking for trouble. "Cutting back on nutritious carbohydrate-containing foods, such as whole grains, fruits and veggies, can lead to deficiencies for several nutrients, including fiber and a long list of B vitamins," Castle says.
In addition, when you decrease nutritious high-carb foods in your eating plan, there's not much left to eat. Castle says she is concerned about kids loading up on protein and fat to fill in for the missing carbohydrates. "In addition, low-carb diets can sap a teen's energy, which is disastrous for athletes because carbohydrates are the primary fuel for exercise," she says.
High-Quality Carbohydrate Foods May Foster Weight Control
Eating fewer carbohydrates may produce weight loss, but including certain carbohydrate-containing foods actually helps promote a healthy weight, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. Whole grains, such as brown rice, are digested more slowly than refined grains such as white rice, possibly preventing hunger. And a New England Journal of Medicine study found that adults who increased their intake of whole grains, whole fruits and vegetables over the course of 20 years gained less weight than those who didn't.
Instead of avoiding all carb-containing foods, it's better for kids and adults to get into the habit of eating healthier choices.