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
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?
‘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.’
‘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.’
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
‘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
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.
ALL IN MODERATION
•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