I get this question more than I’d like to admit: Is eating Paleo safe for kids and babies? Allow me to answer a question with a better question: Is eating a Western diet safe for kids? No, it’s not. And yes, eating Paleo is.
Why Wouldn’t It Be?
The top reasons I’m assuming people think eating Paleo might be dangerous for their child or baby are these:
- Not enough nutrients
- Too much meat
- Not enough dairy (in other words, not enough calcium)
- Too much meat
- Not enough sugary snack foods?
Now, I could take this opportunity to make fun of people for being brainwashed by multi-gazillion-dollar marketing schemes and demented health “officials” into believing that Cocoa Puffs made with whole wheat (or whatever) are really the paragon of a good breakfast. Or for believing that milk from a different species is a vital part of a human’s diet. Or that sugary snacks are a good thing to give kids. Or adults for that matter. But I won’t because I’m a nice person.
The straight answer to the question, again, is yes. Paleo is safe for children and babies alike. In fact, baby and children humans evolved eating Paleo the same as adult humans did for millions of years. Babies of hunter gatherers were given their mother’s Paleo teat and then their mother’s Paleo food to eat just like all the adults. Our ancestors didn’t grow crops of soy, grains, and sugar just so they could make soy formula and soy crackers and Clif bars and rice cereal for their kids to suckle on before they changed them over to an “adult” diet of meat, fish, veggies, and fruits. You get my point. I strongly believe – ahem… KNOW – that Paleo is safe for kids and babies. They have all the digestive faculties in place to eat Paleo foods (aka “real” foods), and if you make it their only option to eat those foods, most kids won’t hunger strike for very long until they figure out that being hungry sucks.
Having said that…
There are some things you should know.
For instance, a 6-month old’s first solid food on his Paleo diet shouldn’t be almonds or raw carrots or a big hunk of steak, either. Now maybe if that steak were blended…
And it shouldn’t be super processed rice cereal like you’re told by your doctor. If you read Nutrition and Physical Degeneration by Weston A. Price, you’ll find that traditional (and generally very healthy) people all over the world have given their children the same whole foods they eat from the get-go. They give their babies spiced foods, fish (even raw fish – gasp!), fish eggs, miso soup, decaffeinated green tea, liver, eggs, fermented soy mash, rice mash, but always there’s a solid protein source in there. Babies are better at digesting protein than carbohydrates before the age of 1, says Chris Kresser in his fantastic resource, The Healthy Baby Code.
Giving such young kids such flavorful foods begs the question: Would American kids like a wider array of foods if they weren’t reared on bland food products like rice, crackers, and rice crackers?
Instead of rice cereal fortified with synthetic nutrients, start with, say, a cooked egg yolk and liver (video). If you’re going Paleo yourself while you’re breastfeeding, I wrote a blog post on what changes to make in your own diet when you’re breastfeeding.
In terms of nutritional needs, kids are just like small adults, so they should be eating adult foods; not white foods with fake vitamins in them and pasteurized, lifeless cheese. I have to put my two cents in here and say that while this may be hard to implement in your household if you have kids who only want mac & cheese or else, it’s better you do this now while you can sort of control what goes into their bodies. Be strong and be firm with them when you go Paleo. They’ll get used to it and most likely start to like the foods you give them. Plus, your kids’ waistlines and health will thank you for it later.
Kids and Carbs
Now, people do make mistakes when they put their kids on a Paleo diet, especially if those kids are active. Namely, parents put their little skinny kids on the same weight-loss Paleo menu that they’re on. That is, low carb. GIVE YOUR KIDS ENOUGH CARBS! If they’re hungry all the time, not growing properly, fatigued, nauseous, or not able to concentrate, you’re A) probably not feeding them enough food in general and B) not feeding them enough carbs and fat. Meat and veggies are great, but just like an endurance athlete needs more carbs, so do your active, growing kids.
Sweet potatoes, squash, banana tapioca crepes, potatoes (yes, potatoes), and plenty of fruit will be your kids’ friends. How much of all of those things really depends on your kid, but I’d shoot for a couple pieces of fruit a day and a small serving of sweet potatoes or one of the other starchy veggies I mentioned above with at least one meal per day. And don’t skimp on those fatty, grass-fed cuts of meat. Kids need more fat than what comes on boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Give them the pork, the good cuts of beef, and some bacon. Coconut milk, coconut oil, olive oil, and avocados will also do the trick. The fat will give them energy.
Nutritional Density of Paleo Diet Compared to Western Diet
I did a comparison of the nutrient density of a typical Western diet and a typical Paleo diet. What I found was that Paleo won on all accounts except for calcium, sodium (not necessarily a bad thing), and vitamin D (because there’s no fortified milk on the diet). I highly recommend you read that post because I go into why that’s not a bad thing more than I will go into it here. I’ll only talk about calcium here because I know it’s on your minds.
Basically, Western countries have the highest incidences of osteoporosis AND the highest consumption of dairy products. So what gives?
In another blog post, I discussed how you need more than just calcium to build bones, and not as much calcium as your doctor may be over-recommending to you. Plus, it’s important to know that calcium needs an alkaline environment to be absorbed properly, and when you’re eating a ton of grains, dairy, beans, and sugar, you’re creating an acidic environment.
Also, a lot of the calcium we ingest on a Western diet is bound to phytic acid, which is carried out of the intestines unabsorbed. You only get what you absorb.
Plus, on this particular day that I analyzed, the difference in calcium intake was only 97 mg, with Paleo coming in at 614 mg and the Western diet at 711 mg. Many cultures do well with way under those amounts. Here’s what Mark Sisson of www.marksdailyapple.com has to say about calcium.
You can get a balanced array of calcium and other bone-building minerals from… wait for it… bones. Make some bone broth. It literally takes 1 minute of prep time to make it.
All I’ll say about meat is that I’ve said it before. Your kid isn’t going to die of rabbit starvation on a balanced Paleo diet. His kidneys won’t fail (unless maybe he already has kidney disease), and he won’t get gout. Read this blog post and this one for more information on why meat is not the devil. Oh, and this one on gout. Having said that, though, you don’t have to be pounding kilos of meat every day to call yourself Paleo. Some people just don’t like meat that much. Fine. Eat less of it, more veggies, more fat, more fruit, and more nuts and seeds (sprouted and soaked, of course) and you’ll be just fine.
From what I hear, parents are often surprised and delighted by how much their kids enjoy the meat and veggie recipes they make for them when they go Paleo. I think we underestimate kids’ appetites for good, nourishing foods. Make some interesting, fun recipes like our Pork Tenderloin with Blueberry Sauce or the Coconut Salmon with Cream Sauce. You might be surprised!
Anyone have anything to share about their own kids’ experiences with going Paleo?