Food fads



Food fads


Could alternative diets be putting children at risk? Are parents cutting essential nutrients from family meals,

in the mistaken belief that they are making healthy choices?



writes Kate Hilpern


Earlier this year, a seven-month-old baby died weighing just 9lb after his parents fed him an alternative gluten-free, lactose-free

diet. The parents, who ran a natural food store in Belgium, made their own diagnosis that their child was gluten intolerant and had a lactose intolerance.


No wonder doctors are increasingly warning parents that putting their children on alternative diets can be at best unsuitable, and at worst dangerous.


The only exceptions that should be made are where a medical professional has made a formal diagnosis and created a bespoke eating plan for a child.


‘As parents, we tend to be easily swayed by what we see and hear

in our quest to do our best for our children. There could hardly be more talk about gluten-free diets at the moment – so in some ways, the trend towards children being put on them should not be surprising,’ says Frankie Phillips, dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association (BDA).


If you, as a parent, are on a gluten-free diet (which an estimated

third of American adults now are, with Britain following hot on the heels), it just makes life easier if your child is too, she adds.




More and more parents are self-diagnosing ‘food intolerances’ in

their children. The classic scenario is a child who has a bout of vomiting or diarrhoea, or is simply a fussy eater, and the parent who is looking for an explanation and quick-fix Even when parents do seek a medical diagnosis, they often use over-the-counter testing kits, most of which are unreliable and misleading, says Frankie Phillips. ‘The reality is that very small numbers of children have food intolerances,’ she says.


The Coeliac Society estimate that just one in 100 people has

Coeliac Disease, a condition that truly does make you intolerant to gluten. ‘The rest of us – no more so than growing children – need the nutients provided by wholegrain foods, many of which happen to contain gluten. Otherwise we risk losing much-needed nutrients including B vitamins,’ says Frankie Phillips.


Even if you suspect your child genuinely might have Coeliac Disease, it’s crucial to seek medical advice. The worst thing you can do is self-help and cut out gluten altogether, adds Frankie

Phillips. ‘Doctors test for Coeliac by looking at the bowel for characteristic patterns – if you’ve cut out gluten before this test, your bowels will look normal.’



A fad of their own


Some children create their own fad diets – the 18-month-old who will eat nothing but bananas and the four-year-old who will drink nothing but San Pelegrino (yes, we know one...) So how much should parents worry and how should they

deal with it?


Claire Baseley:


‘It’s called fussy eating and it’s just a phase. In fact, the fussy eating phase could hardly be better documented in scientific literature because such large numbers of children go through it. Don’t get emotionally invested in your child’s food intake – just deal with it positively by being a good role model around food and eat as a family to make eating social and fun rather than stressful. Above all, remember they’ll come out of the other side.’


Frankie Phillips:


‘Lots of children go through a stage of being picky and it’s

not something to worry about. Get children involved with

choosing foods in the shops and preparing it, and let them

get messy with food to help build a relationship with it.

Don’t be a short-order cook, customising meals for picky

eaters, and have fun at the table so meals become positive,

relaxed experiences for both you and your children.’


Dairy anxieties


The number of children who are intolerant to dairy is also low, but that doesn’t stop parents deciding that their child must have a cow’s milk protein allergy or lactose intolerance, then cutting out dairy from their diet.


‘Only about two to five per cent of babies are genuinely allergic to

cow’s milk protein,’ says Frankie Phillips. ‘It’s usually picked up in the first few weeks or months of life, with digestive, respiratory (wheezing) or skin (eczema) problems caused by cows’ milk protein. It can prompt a switch to a hypoallergenic formula-feed.


‘But unless your child actually has the allergy, it’s an unnecessary expense and carries the risk of your baby refusing the formula. Even if children have the allergy, they can usually have small amounts of cows’ milk from 12 months old under medical guidance,

and they often eventually grow out of it.’


More alarmingly, you can end up removing one of the best sources of calcium and iodine for your child, says registered nutritionist Claire Baseley. ‘Calcium is essential for bone and muscle formation, while iodine – which is often overlooked when removing dairy from a diet – is required for thyroid function and growth in your children. Given that there aren’t many other sources, cutting out dairy can

have a massive impact.’


Some parents cut out dairy from their child’s diet because they decide the child is lactose-intolerant which – when it genuinely exists - can cause bloating, wind and diarrhoea. ‘But again, we’re talking small numbers of children who really have it and even those that have a proper diagnosis can often tolerate a yoghurt and cheese – it’s not like the extreme reaction of a peanut allergy. If you cut out all dairy, you carry health risks,’ says Frankie Phillips.


High protein diets


The worst culprits of current fad diets, when it comes to children, are high-protein diets, claims Frankie Phillips. ‘Children’s kidneys need time to develop and high protein puts a burden on both kidneys and the digestive system.


‘It’s true that a range of protein containing foods give you a variety of nutrients. But, crucially, it doesn’t follow that if a little of something is good for you, then a lot must be even better. It’s also important to remember that if you have too much of anything, it simply displaces other foods from the diet, often essential ones such as fruit and veg.’


Diets like the Atkins Diet and the Paleo Diet can spell trouble for

children. ‘I’m particularly alarmed to see Paleo Diets actually targeted at young children,’ says Claire Baseley. ‘There is no evidence that children are protein-deficient – in fact, there is evidence that they are having more than they need and research suggests that high-protein diets in the first three years of life can lead to increased risk of obesity and diabetes later on.’


So-called ‘clean eating’ is also increasing in popularity. ‘This umbrella term refers to cutting out anything unnatural or processed in any way, and on paper it sounds like a good thing,’ says Claire Baseley. ‘But the complete demonisation of certain foods is what

rings the alarm bells for me.


‘As with the other fad diets, it gives children the message that to be healthy and virtuous, you need this very pairedback, joyless attitude to food: when we know that imposing strict diets based on food guilt and fear can cause long-term harm and an unbalanced relationship with food,’ she adds.




Restricting foods can make the controlled foods more desirable, and rewarding children for eating healthy foods makes them like those foods less, according to research. Never demonise food by calling it ‘bad,’ ‘toxic’ or ‘junk’. Too much pressure on kids can make their eating habits worse.


Even with sugar, the advice is not to cut it out altogether. Instead, provide healthier snacks, more nutritious drinks, more fruit and vegetables and fibre with wholemeal and wholegrain options. Staying active is crucial. But a biscuit or sugary drink once in a while isn’t a nutrition crime.


Be a role model. If you cut out certain foods, you give a ‘good vs bad’ message to children about food. Try new things and enjoy a wide range of tastes in front of them. Don’t worry about eating less healthy foods once in a while if the overall diet is healthy.


Surviving on pasta














Nicola Gregson’s daughter Tulip created her own food fad at 18 months old. They live in Rosendale, Lancashire.


‘My daughter survived from 18 months to around five years old on

pain au chocolate, pesto pasta – and very little else.


I did get stressed, but tried not to show it. So many people would

give me different advice and sometimes I’d have visions of her winding up with some kind of malnutrition-based disease. I also couldn’t understand it, as my husband and I are such foodies –

how had she turned out like this?


Things started changing when I involved her in all the cooking,

starting with making the pasta with me, putting in her own cheese, trying different coloured cheeses so she could pick and

choose. Then we moved onto making other things such as burgers. She would mix the mincemeat, adding in cheese and

eventually she started eating them.


I also encouraged her to eat at friends’ houses – having briefed

the parents – who just served her food without asking her what she liked or wanted. I remember one of the friends ringing me up once and telling me Tulip had eaten a cheesy bake. I wasn’t sure whether to feel angry she wouldn’t do the same for me or thrilled that she’d finally eaten something different.


Tulip is 12 years old now and she has a much more balanced diet.

My message to parents is not to let children’s food fads get them down. It always passes.’






May/June 2018

All information is correct at time of publishing