There is a good chance that if you haven’t already tried some sort of modified-carb diet, you’re probably thinking about it. And if you have tried a low-carb or reduced-carb diet and found it effective, you may be tempted to put your spouse on a similar program – or maybe even your kids.
Whether it’s because your children could stand to lose a couple of pounds, or you simply don’t want to cook different meals for each family member, getting the whole group on a low-carb diet may sound inviting. Considering that restaurant menus, fast-food chains and grocery-store shelves are now overflowing with reduced-carbohydrate options, carb-cutting appears to be an all-ages show.
Appearances, though, can be deceiving. Although most kids (like most adults) could stand to lighten up on unhealthy, carb-heavy processed goods like soda, white bread and candy, restricting a growing child’s intake of healthy carbohydrates can result in a number of problems down the road, even if he or she is currently overweight.
Despite the low-carb craze, carbohydrates aren’t nutritional villains, nor are they all created equal. Whole-food carbs, including fruits, vegetables, legumes and unrefined grains, are a critical source of nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals. Carbohydrates are also the main dietary source of energy, and their ingestion affects many aspects of brain and bodily function.
Carbohydrates are divided into two groups: complex carbs and simple carbs. Complex carbohydrates take longer to digest and are usually packed with fiber, vitamins and minerals. Examples include whole-grain varieties of bread, rice and pasta; vegetables such as beets, broccoli and carrots; and legumes, such as lentils, peas and beans.
Simple carbohydrates, also called simple sugars, are digested quickly and can contain refined sugar, fructose (fruit sugar) or lactose (milk sugar). Candy, cakes, sodas and syrups are all good examples of simple carbs. High-sugar fruits, such as bananas and oranges, also are rich sources of simple carbs.
Then there are refined carbs, which are considered a subcategory of carbohydrates because they are not “natural” carbs. Refined carbs are similar to simple carbs in that they have the same effect in the body as sugars. They are primarily starches that have had the bran, hull, fiber and some nutrients removed from the grain during processing. Examples include processed white-flour products—bread, bagels and many crackers and cereals. Essentially, refined carbs can refer to just about any carb-based foods broken down from their natural state—arguably, that might even include making apples into apple juice.
Carbs are further defined by their glycemic index, a rating system that indicates how fast they break down into glucose and increase blood-sugar levels. Simple carbohydrates, which break down quickly, are generally ranked as “high glycemic” foods, while slow-digesting complex carbs are more often considered “low glycemic.”
Keeping a good balance of carbohydrates in the diet is essential to grownups but even more important for kids. Children are generally more active and have higher metabolisms than adults, which means they require a greater supply of the easily accessible fuel that carbohydrates provide. Not to mention that their bodies are growing – a process that requires a constant supply of nutrients.
Restricting an entire category of foods like carbohydrates can greatly compromise a child’s energy level and even mental acuity. When you consider that the brain needs glucose to function properly, it makes sense that without a ready supply, kids will have a harder time staying alert.
When deprived of carbohydrates, the body is forced to burn fat as a fuel source. Although this process – called ketosis – can lead to weight loss, it can also cause dehydration and “fuzzy thinking.”
“Ketosis is one of the body’s survival mechanisms,” says Derek Johnson, RD, a Los Angeles–based nutritionist. “It is not a natural state, and you certainly don’t want to keep your kids in it.”
Instead of cutting down on your kids’ carbs, simply choose more of the right ones. Replace refined carbs with complex carbs and substitute unhealthy simple carbs (refined sugars like soda and candy) with more nutritious ones, like low-fat dairy (milk, yogurt) and whole fruit (apples, grapes, bananas, pears) – but not necessarily fruit juices, which contain higher amounts of sugar than regular fruit.
While drinking 100 percent fruit juice is better than eating no fruit at all, it’s considered a refined carb and you should limit your child’s intake. (See “Judging Juices,” page 18.) A good rule of thumb: It’s always better to eat your fruit than drink it.
“Research shows that reducing the amount of simple carbohydrates in a child’s diet gives them a steadier stream of energy and sharper mental focus,” says Melissa Diane Smith, a nutritionist and coauthor of Syndrome X: The Complete Nutritional Program to Prevent and Reverse Insulin Resistance (John Wiley & Sons, 2001). But that doesn’t mean you should cut carbs overall.
In fact, feeding your kids more complex carbs can even help them stay slim. A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics (November 2003) found that when children begin the day with a low-glycemic (complex carbs) breakfast, such as high-fiber bran cereal or muesli, rather than high-glycemic, simple carbs like processed boxed cereals, they consumed fewer calories at lunch.
“If you want your kids to maintain a healthy weight, one of the best things you can do is feed them a breakfast of complex carbohydrates and protein,” says Smith. So skip the traditional quick bowl of processed cereal and opt instead for whole-grain oatmeal (not instant) with a few almond slivers on top, or a smoothie made with milk or yogurt, fresh berries and a scoop of protein powder.
Focusing on the Future
Over the long term, kids who eat plenty of complex carbs may actually become healthier teens. New results from the Framingham Children’s Study, an offshoot of the ongoing Framingham Heart Study, shows that restricting all types of carbohydrates in the early years actually produces more overweight teens.
“What we found is the kids whose diet consisted of less than 50 percent carbs were fatter when they became teenagers,” says Lynn Moore, DSc, associate professor of medicine at Boston University and the study’s director.
Moore and her team analyzed the dietary habits of 106 families who had children ages 3 to 5. The children were followed for an average of 12 years with three-day food diaries collected four times each year. Mean-body-fat percentage was determined using skin-fold measurements from four areas of the body.
The study also showed that children who consume fewer carbohydrates had lower intake levels of fruits, vegetables and fiber – one of the biggest criticisms of low-carb diets in general. And without adequate servings of fruits and vegetables, children are not getting enough vitamins, minerals and disease-fighting antioxidants. “We can barely get enough fruits and vegetables into children under normal conditions,” says Moore, “let alone when we’re obsessing over how many carbs are in an orange.”
Many low-carb diets reduce the intake of carbohydrate-rich dairy products, but of course children need adequate amounts of calcium for proper bone development. In fact (barring an allergy or intolerance), increasing a child’s amount of dairy products, like milk, cheese and yogurt, may actually help a child stay slimmer as he or she enters adolescence, according to the Framingham Children’s Study.
Specifically, children who averaged more than two glasses of milk, or more than two servings of cheese or yogurt, a day were more than an inch slimmer as teenagers. “There seem to be a number of compounds in dairy products, in particular magnesium and calcium, that are involved in weight regulation as well as glucose metabolism,” says Moore.
The results also showed that the children with the lowest intakes of magnesium were the fattest. In addition to being rich sources of both calcium and magnesium, dairy foods also help create the feeling of satiety, thus helping to prevent overeating. “Regardless of how much fat that kids had in their diet, those who consumed low levels of dairy products gained much more weight throughout childhood,” notes Moore.
Beyond the Bulge
The number of overweight and obese children has grown at an alarming rate in the past decade. Today, about 30.3 percent of children ages 6 to 11 are overweight (body mass index of 25 or higher) and 15.3 percent are obese (a body mass index of 30 or above), according to the American Obesity Association. The figures are similar for adolescents (ages 12 to 19).
So if low-carb isn’t the answer, what can you do for your overweight child? First off, get them moving. Most kids can benefit from increased activity. Moore advises against strict diets – low-carb or otherwise. Such diets often backfire, she notes, and some experts believe that being exposed to food restrictions at a young age can lead to eating disorders.
Instead, she advises, when trying to help your kids slim down, adjust the type of food you are serving the whole family, and let them know that this approach to eating better is for the entire household and not just them. Here are some strategies:
Think moderation – According to the Framingham study, “the kids who were getting a moderate amount of fat in their diet and a sufficient amount of carbs (at least 50 percent of their diet) tended not to feel hungry, were the most active and burned off what they ate,” says Moore.
Keep it basic – Expecting your kids to plan their eating around the glycemic index is setting them (and you) up for failure. “Encourage your kids to avoid soft drinks and to choose whole foods that are naturally colorful, which eliminates many of the worst glycemic offenders,” advises Smith.
Downsize it – When it comes to kids, it’s all about portion control. “If you simply teach them to eat smaller meals throughout the day and to drink a glass of water with each, they will usually maintain a normal weight,” says Johnson. Parents should follow these rules, too. A small change like cooking 2 cups of brown rice for the whole family rather than a cup each can make a world of difference.
Teach, don’t preach – Getting kids involved with choosing and cooking foods can also help them make better choices. When you’re shopping, have them scour the produce department for interesting and colorful vegetables. Then, when you get home, encourage them to be more involved in the cooking process. “Having kids pick out which foods they want in a stir-fry or on a kabob will help them feel more in control of their own choices,” says Smith.
Veg out – Replace refined white-flour products (which work like simple carbs) with vegetables galore, whole fruits, nuts and seeds. If you have veggie sticks cut up in the fridge or fresh berries in a bowl and ready to go, your kids will be more likely to eat them.
Set a good example – Actions speak louder than words. Children are more likely to eat a balanced diet, choose reasonable portions and stay physically active if it’s how their whole family operates.
In order to grow, play, and learn, your kids’ bodies need healthy carbohydrates. Teaching your children how to make wise dietary choices rather than to fear certain foods will leave them healthy, energetic and empowered. So when they become adults, they may not need diets at all.