I used to think unqualified celebrities who dished out dietary advice were a bit of a joke. If their fans wanted to spend half their income on organic, sun-ripened, goji berry-infused beef marrow in the hope of replicating the diet of cave people — who had a life expectancy of thirty — then good luck to them.
But when Pete Evans decided to expand his target market to include babies and children, things became unfunny very quickly.
His controversial paleo cookbook Bubba Yum Yum: The Paleo Way For New Mums, Babies and Toddlers has reportedly been withheld from publication because of a potentially lethal recipe for baby formula made from liver and bone broth. The brew apparently contains more than ten times the safe maximum daily intake of vitamin A for babies and inadvisable levels of other nutrients.
Despite this, Pete Evans took the stage at a paleo event at Melbourne Town Hall on Saturday to spruik his baby formula.
I’d like to think that most people are smart enough to know that feeding their infant Evans’ formula is a bad idea. Yet there are other food trends for babies and children that are potentially unsafe but may fly under the radar because they appear less radical.
1. Low-carb diets for kids
Made famous by Gwyneth Paltrow, the low-carb diet for kids has been fuelled by an almost hysterical fear that carbohydrates cause obesity. Accordingly, some parents have banned such staples as bread, pasta and rice.
A mother in my peer group fed her two-year-old protein bars with an ingredients list that required a chemistry degree to decode because she was worried that her daughter’s carb intake would make her fat.
“Our brains are solely reliant on glucose (a carbohydrate) for energy,” says dietitian Joel Feren. “Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred fuel source. In fact, excluding carbohydrate foods will likely lead to low energy levels, poor fibre intakes and inadequate nutrient intakes.”
2. Low-fat diets
The low-fat message is pushed at adults from every angle, so it’s not surprising that some parents assume it applies to children as well. Some parents dilute baby formula with water to reduce the fat content or substitute it with low-fat milk.
The low-fat diet for adults is now being questioned within the medical profession but it has never been recommended for children.
Dr Katja Rowell, who specialises in children’s eating behaviours, says there’s no evidence that feeding your children low-fat dairy will prevent unhealthy weight gain.
“Toddlers need around a third of their calories from fat and a low-fat diet is not appropriate for infants and toddlers,” she says.
“If the young toddler is getting skim milk and the parents are serving mostly veggies and low fat foods, s/he will not get enough fat.”
3. Raw food vegan or garden diets
Proponents of uncooked and 100 per cent plant-based diets make the typical promises of weight loss and clearer skin but they also claim it leads to increased energy.
But dietitian Rachel Gerathy says young children have high energy needs and these diets may supply insufficient calories, potentially reducing children’s energy levels and stunting their growth.
“100 per cent raw food vegan diets risk insufficient B12, which is required for cell division and can lead to neurological damage and megaloblastic anaemia blood disorder,” she says.
That’s not to say that kids can’t be vegetarian. Some cultures rely heavily on vegetarian and vegan diets but such diets need to be managed well if children are to thrive.
“If children are on vegan or vegetarian diets it’s important to make sure they are nutritionally adequate for growing bodies,” Gerathy says.
4. Multiple exclusion diets
Some children suffer from food allergies and intolerances but it’s important not to cut out too many foods at once.
“If they cut out 20 things all at the same time and never challenge them individually, it’s extremely likely that they are avoiding 19 things that they can have,” says dietitian Megan McClintock.
“This can have a major impact, not only on their nutrition but it’s a massive load on an individual or family to be spending so much time and energy on food decisions,” she says.
One version of an exclusion diet is the gluten and casein free diet for children with autism. Proponents claim it leads to an improvement in the behaviour of autistic children.
“There is no evidence to support this theory,” dietitian Joel Feren says. “Eschewing whole food groups runs the risk of nutrient deficiencies. The diet is highly restrictive and unnecessary.”
5. Forbidden foods
Some parents think they are teaching healthy eating behaviours when they ban ‘unhealthy’ or ‘bad’ foods. In fact, they may be doing the exact opposite.
“When parents strictly avoid all processed foods, sugar, refined flours and refer to those foods as ‘toxic’ or ‘poison’ children really struggle,” says children’s eating behaviours expert Dr Katja Rowell.
“Food and meal times are defined by fear and avoidance. Some children become anxious and more food averse, while others crave and seek out the forbidden foods.”
6. Encouraging children to eat less
“What I see most often is parents trying to get children to eat less,” says Dr Rowell.
“Parents routinely tell me that they worry their infant will be fat, so they try to distract them from eating and leave them crying for more food. This can lead to food-preoccupied toddlers and in my opinion a pre-cursor to binge eating,” she says.
Dietician Rachel Gerathy says “We should be encouraging children to listen to their body’s internal regulation cues for hunger and satiety, allowing them to consume a range of wholesome foods with varied tastes and textures within the realms of a balanced nutritional intake.”
For more information on healthy eating for children, see the Australian Dietary Guidelines.