By Claire McDonnell Liu, Nutritionist at Leafie.org
Most children don’t need to follow a ‘diet’, but many would benefit from easing up on their sugar and highly refined carbohydrate intake, especially cutting junk foods.
We are living in a time when there is something seriously wrong with our modern family foods. Children begin their day with a bowl of branded beige cereal, then tuck into sweetened flavoured yoghurts, sandwiches, snack bar and chips at lunch, followed by family meals like pasta, often made from jar sauces crammed full of enhancers and sugars. Our kids are flooded with Ultra Processed Foods (UPF), swimming in refined carbohydrates and sugars, throughout each day – before they get to the parties, school discos or treats.
Following a Low Carb lifestyle for children may sound a little faddy or restrictive, but that is not the intention. As we cut down on junk foods, children’s foods become lower-carb by default.
Is a Low Carb Diet Healthy for Kids?
Low Carb nutrition means plenty of diverse healthy fats and vegetables, adequate protein, along with moderate fruit, nuts and seeds.
Low carb nutrition for children is about returning to simpler foods – foods not made in a factory. This eating style can also be called a ‘sugar-free’ or a real food approach. Any way you term it, it is brimming with whole foods and avoids reliance on much of the convenience foods and drinks that have come to dominate the modern family diet.
Eating a lower-carb diet based on real foods could help our children avoid becoming overweight and reduce their long term risk of serious disease, including cancers, diabetes, heart and coronary disease.
Benefits of Low Carb Nutrition for Kid’s
Why lower the carbs?
Almost one child in four is overweight or obese in Australia. Reducing ultra-processed high carb, high sugar intake from children’s regular meals, snacks and drinks can potentially reduce their risk of weight gain and obesity, type 2 diabetes, tooth decay and other diseases of metabolic dysfunction.
Research shows that eating sugary foods can increase children’s risk for developing serious health conditions in their lifetimes, including insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, heart and coronary disease and certain cancers. Whilst cutting down on our kid’s daily sugar intake can reduce the risk of disease and becoming overweight.
Many parents are unaware of just how many of their everyday foods are loaded with hidden sugars. Whilst we know about the obvious sweet stuff, cakes, sweets, soft drinks, we may not realise the amount of sugar our children take in from savoury foods such as soups, salad dressing, bread, spread, dips, even meat products. In fact, the majority of packaged foods and drinks contain added sugar.
Avoid blood sugar rollercoaster
When children eat low carb nutritious meals they can avoid blood-sugar highs and subsequent lows, which may help to level out children’s concentration, mood and energy levels.
Better nutrition and reduced inflammation
Once excessive refined carb foods are reduced, children have more opportunities to eat healthy whole foods, which means better nutrition. For example just think about how many potato, pasta, cereal, rice and bread products feature again and again in a standard diet. Swapping out these repetitive items for real foods adds endless possibilities to mealtimes and important nutritional diversity, an important factor in gut health. For example, a pie topped with cauliflower mash, cabbage noodle stir fry instead of rice noodles, veg chips replacing corn or potato chips.
Eating a varied diet that is rich in nutritious whole foods packed with antioxidants, vitamins, nutrients and minerals can support optimal health and may help to prevent inflammation, a major driver of disease.
Eating foods containing healthy fats, fibre and protein can help us to feel more satiated, turning off our hunger hormone so that we naturally feel full and stop eating.
Foods like avocados, green leafy veggies, chia seeds, flaxseeds, nuts, raspberries and blackberries are high in fibre, which has been found to be beneficial for digestive gut health and keeping kids’ feeling fuller longer.
Helping your child to foster a love of real foods over factory-made stuff can help to develop their food knowledge and skills that will help them to stay healthy throughout their lives.
How to change kid’s foods
Whether you have toddlers or teens, your children will develop their own preferences for the foods they enjoy most. Food will need to look and taste good for any changes to last. Try our tips to encourage lasting healthy eating habits:
Appeal. Make nutritious choices appealing by offering healthier versions of the foods they already love. For example, try cauliflower base pizza, their favourite pasta sauce with vegetables in place of pasta, quality meat burgers served with the salad foods that they enjoy.
Involve children in meal planning, shopping and cooking. If they cook it they are much more likely to eat it.Encourage your child to pick a dish or type of cuisine to cook together. Involving children in the regular cooking tasks helps to build valuable food knowledge and life skills, whilst spending quality time together.
Pick your battles. Focus on the larger picture of improving their overall diet over time rather than taking away specific foods or overhauling everything straight away. Kids should be eating more whole, minimally processed food as close to its natural form as possible. Try swapping packaged foods one meal at a time.
Empower. Children are great at understanding complex issues, try asking them some questions around health, nutrition, junk foods and you may be surprised by how much they already know and how much they do care about what they are putting into their bodies. The more we inform our children and help them to enjoy real foods the better equipped they will be to make great choices.
Be the change. Demonstrate the habits that you would love your children to form. Children tend to learn through watching and copying what their parents do. Instead of telling your children what to eat make sure they see you enjoying a wide range of healthy whole foods.
Swaps and hidden gems. Introduce gradual swaps to everyday meals and lunch box snacks. Blend courgette into your home-cooked pasta sauce, add diced celery to a stew, top pies with mashed celeriac, and try out cauliflower rice with their favourite casserole. If they eat chips/crisps swap for plain popcorn, offer a cooked lunch in a thermos or deconstructed lunch of meat and fave vegetable batons.
Cook more. Save money and hone your culinary skills by cooking at home. Cooking in extra-large batches saves money and also means that you can freeze portions ready for easy family weekday meals.
Get healthier snacks ready. Vegetable batons and dips; apple slices with nut butter; jerky are ideal alternatives as you clear out the unhealthy chips, crackers and cookies.
Change your rewards. Culturally we use food as a reward, consolation and to celebrate. Help your kids set new habits by celebrating with an outing, poster for their room, a new book or other activity. Moving away from using food as an emotional crutch.
Opting to go ‘low carb’ for families can simply mean reducing the burden of excessive sugary and refined carbohydrates from Ultra Processed Foods (UPF). By cutting out these junk foods we make room for more vibrant, healthy whole foods, which means better nutrition. Eating in this style can avoid many of the inflammatory elements in modern family food products, reducing children’s risk of weight gain, ill-health, tooth decay and disease over their lifetime.
Move over beige boxed foods, fresh ingredients coming through!