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It's Healthy for You, But is it Healthy for Your Kids?

Published Feb 08, 2018 • Last Updated 09:47 am, February 08, 2018

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If there's one thing adults love to obsess over, it's their diets. For some, a diet just means eating more fruit or cutting down on carbs to lose weight, but many adults today will opt for diets that eliminate commonly consumed foods, such as gluten, meat, or dairy, in the hopes of leading more healthy lives. Sometimes the choice to abstain from these foods has beneficial effects for adults, but is it safe for kids to do the same?

Mary Savoye-DeSanti, RD, CDE, a pediatric dietitian at the Yale University School of Medicine and founder of Bright Bodies at Yale and Smart Moves for Children, says that children should only abstain from key food groups, such as gluten, if it is medically necessary.

"It has become hip to be following a gluten-free diet lately and the long and short of it is that only people who have celiac disease or who are gluten sensitive (either diagnosed by a physician) should be following such diets," she says.

Kara Ganssle Pachniuk, the director of nutrition for POP Weight Loss Connecticut, agrees.

"If a child is free from all allergies, then an adherence to a specific diet is not recommended," she says.

Both Savoye-DeSanti and Ganssle Pachniuk also agree that parents should meet with registered dieticians and nutritionists before taking away any key food groups from their children's diet, with Savoye-DeSanti noting that people with restrictive food allergies are given proper guidance from medical professionals.

"Gluten provides B vitamins that are much needed for heart health, as well as boosting mood. Additionally, fiber found in gluten-based products such as wheat help keep us regular. Those who have celiac disease or who are gluten sensitive are often taught how to increase their fiber intake for heart health and to get the B vitamins they need. The average person might not be knowledgeable of this," she says.

When it comes to being vegan or having a dairy-free diet, Savoye-DeSanti says that it's possible to do, but that a professional should still be consulted.

"Those who want to follow a vegan diet (no animal-derived foods at all, including dairy and eggs) need to be educated to consume enough B12, a vitamin responsible for healthy red blood cells, because there are limited foods that provide this vitamin once you eliminate meat, eggs, and dairy in a full vegan diet," says Savoye-DeSanti. "A dietitian might help a child choose a fortified breakfast cereal that has enough B12 or recommend a supplement if food choices of the child's food preferences are too limited."

Although parents could have the best of intentions when trying to set food restrictions for their children, it could have the potential to tarnish their child's lifelong relationship with food. Both Savoye-DeSanti and Ganssle Pachniuk stress that language parents use about food is just as important as what they put in their bodies.

"Children are always listening, so being mindful about one's commentary about food is essential," says Ganssle Pachniuk. "Categorizing food as 'good' or 'bad' can lead to issues later in life. Using words like 'nutritious' and 'healthy' are fine, but demonizing gluten, meat, and dairy can cause a child to be missing key nutrients."

Savoye-DeSanti says that it's even possible for children to develop eating disorders from this kind of dieting.

"I have watched this happen with a number of patients, generally teens," she says. "This is another reason to not be following these diets if not medically necessary."

At the end of the day, children need a balanced diet and to have a healthy relationship with food. If it's decided that they are going to stay away from certain key nutrients, professional input is necessary.

"Bottom Line:  (1) Seek professional medical help to determine if one of these diets is necessary and (2) if necessary, consult with [a registered dietician] to be sure nutritional needs are met in a sensible way," says Savoye-DeSanti.


Let Them Eat Cake?

With food allergies on the rise, planning the food menu for your children's birthday party could be very overwhelming. Obviously you can't accommodate everyone, but what can you serve that any child can eat regardless of any eating restrictions? "Rice Krispies treats are usually a safe bet," says Christine Reed, owner of Shayna B's By The Sea in Old Saybrook. Her bakery specializes in gluten and lactose-free products. Reed also recommends having the children decorate their own treats, and adds that most health food stores sell gluten and dairy-free sprinkles.

Note: Be sure to use new, unopened butter, marshmallows, and Rice Krispies to avoid cross-contamination from other foods.

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