The buzz around keto is loud and clear. Magazines touting the words “keto diet,” “easy keto meals,” and “lose weight with keto” are lining check-out stands everywhere.
The trendy diet has shown beneficial results for many people. But what about keto for kids?
Is it safe?
As a parent, there are plenty of reasons you might want to investigate:
- You’re concerned about your teen trying keto as a crash diet.
- You want to help your children achieve a healthy weight, and you’ve heard keto is good for weight loss.
- You are interested in a new nutrition protocol for the whole family’s health and you want to learn more about the safety of this diet.
In this article we will review what the keto diet is, who may benefit from it, reasons keto is not appropriate for kids, and healthier alternatives for long-term wellness.
What is the keto diet?
Keto is short for ketogenic — a dietary approach booming in popularity for weight loss, mental clarity, and increased energy. The diet is centered around limiting carbohydrates and eating more fats to tap into an energy source other than the sugars many of us rely on.
Where keto originated: A treatment for epilepsy
While the majority of keto diet adopters are interested in losing weight, the nutrition protocol was first introduced in the early 1900s as a treatment for epileptic seizures.
Historically, long-term fasting proved successful in reducing the number of seizures and the adverse health effects associated with epilepsy. But, the challenge with fasting is that the body can only sustain it for so long, it is uncomfortable, and it can increase the risk for nutrient deficiencies.
As soon as epilepsy patients returned to eating, the seizures returned as well.
With further experimentation, a fasting-work-around showed similar metabolic benefits while simultaneously providing adequate calories and nutrients. The elimination of starch and sugar created a similar outcome, without fasting. Hence, the ketogenic diet was born.
How ketosis works
Glucose (or sugar) is the “easiest” fuel source for the body to use, and when our diets include significant carbohydrates, it’s the go-to substrate.
But, by minimizing carbohydrates and eating healthy fats, the body calls upon ketones instead. Ketosis is the metabolic process that converts either dietary or stored body fat into ketone bodies. Your heart, muscles, or brain can use ketones as energy when carbohydrate is unavailable.
Starvation, fasting, long-bouts of exercise, and untreated type one diabetes all initiate the production of ketones (an evolutionary survival mechanism at work), AND so does a high-fat, low-carb diet.
Here’s the general macronutrient composition of a diet that will set your body up for ketosis:
- 60 – 75% fat
- 15 – 30% protein
- 5 – 10% carbohydrate
Eating this way over time results in keto-adaptation (the body’s ability to make and use ketones as its primary fuel source).
Keto diet do’s and don’ts
Reaching keto-adaptation in a healthy way takes careful dietary choices. Let’s take a look at what types of food make up the keto diet for most enthusiasts.
Sources of healthy fats:
While the percentage of fat on a keto diet is high, reaching adequate amounts is easily achieved through intentional selection of foods such as these at each meal.
- Pasture-raised meats (fattier cuts)
- Pasture-raised lard, and grass-fed tallow (pork and beef fats for cooking)
- Wild-caught fatty fish (salmon, trout, tuna, mackerel)
- Full fat, organic butter and ghee,
- Full fat, organic heavy cream and cheese (if dairy is tolerated)
- Coconut oil, MCT oil, coconut
- Olive oil, avocado oil
- Nuts and seeds
Sources of quality proteins:
We hear “high-fat” and “low-carb” when it comes to keto, but what about protein? As the building blocks of our body tissues, proteins are also important, and moderate amounts help with satiation and fat burning.
Tracking protein quantities can be helpful for consuming enough without leaving too much excess for the body to convert into glucose — bumping a person out of ketosis.
- Pasture-raised beef, poultry, pork, lamb
- Wild fish, shellfish, seafood
- Organ meats
Sources of nutrient-dense carbohydrates:
On a keto diet, non-starchy vegetables are the main carbohydrate source, and the good news is that these foods tend to be dense in essential vitamins and minerals.
- Green and colorful fibrous vegetables that grow above the ground
- Occasionally berries
Foods to avoid on keto:
Grains, bread, pasta, legumes, candy, processed snack foods, soda, and fruit juice typically contain too much carbohydrate to work with a ketogenic diet. Even many fruits, starchy vegetables, and tubers take a backseat.
Trendy diets have their place
Whether you practice intermittent fasting (which temporarily puts the body in a state of semi-starvation), or follow the ketogenic diet, reaching ketosis has shown a variety of health benefits for certain groups of people.
Keto benefits for adults
Keto has taken the diet world by storm. Some segments of the population have experienced such positive effects on their health that others wonder if they too might reap the rewards.
As a nutritionist, I always look at the science and ignore the hype around diet claims. Here’s what we have to go on when assessing the potential benefits of the ketogenic diet:
A ketogenic diet done well shows strong evidence for:
- Weight loss
- Improving insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes
- Decreasing cardiovascular disease risk factors
- Treating epilepsy
Emerging evidence also shows promising benefits for the treatment of:
- Some cancers
- Traumatic brain injuries
Anecdotally, people following a keto approach report benefits including:
- Reduced sugar cravings
- Improved sleep
- Increased energy
- Reduced general inflammation
- Mental clarity
- Better mood
Children with medical conditions
The ketogenic diet was a historic breakthrough for managing seizures in children with epilepsy. With the advent of pharmaceuticals, dietary treatment took a backseat, but has since returned as one of the most effective tools for this population.
Maintaining a state of ketosis has also proved effective for treating children with conditions where the body doesn’t use glucose well, such as in pyruvate dehydrogenase deficiency, or glucose transporter type 1 deficiency syndrome.
5 Reasons to steer clear of keto for kids
While a high-fat and very low-carb nutritional approach is warranted in certain cases, such a diet is NOT recommended for:
- pregnant or breast-feeding women
- those with adrenal fatigue or hypoglycemia
- disordered eating
- the elderly
- generally healthy kids
Let’s consider five reasons why keto and kids don’t mix.
1. Dangers of restrictive eating
Limiting food intake to certain foods or food groups is something to watch out for in children and teens. In fact, restrictive dieting in childhood can lead to abnormal eating behaviors such as Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder.
Aside from catering to those with specific food allergies, the goal should be to seek a varied real food diet as much as possible. The restrictive nature of the keto diet has the potential to cause negative physiological and psychological effects in children if not well executed and supported.
2. Proper ketosis requires diligent monitoring
Following a ketogenic diet that provides proper nourishment is no easy task. When it’s used for treating medical conditions in children, it is carefully monitored to prevent nutritional deficiencies.
Even when adults are adhering to this protocol they often closely track food intake, measure ketone levels, and record their health status — none of which a child should be focused on.
3. Important to establish a healthy relationship with food
Having a positive relationship with food is one of the best attributes our children can carry into adulthood. It will set them up for lifelong habits where they are in the driver’s seat, rather than shame or quilt.
Seeing and appreciating food as a source of nourishment to best support our body, mind, and spirit with the nutrients and energy needed for health and happiness is a gift.
A child following a keto diet may be too young to discern the difference between eating for metabolic and neurological benefit and labeling foods as acceptable or forbidden. Without a full understanding, obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors can develop.
4. Nutrient variety is key for growth and development
Childhood and adolescent years are critical for adequate nutrient intake. Growth and development require proper nutrition. Thus a variety of wholesome, real foods are needed throughout this time.
Building meals with your children around higher fat, adequate protein, and low processed carbohydrate foods can be a healthy approach. However, attaching the word “keto” or restricting real food carbohydrates is not.
5. Kids do well with a balanced diet
In virtually all aspects of life, balance helps kids flourish. Providing outer structure with freedom within a safe environment opens them up to curiosity and their own exploration. On the contrary, constant regimentation can result in confusion, rebellion, and poor choices.
The same applies to nutrition. Children need balanced meals and real food guidance with room for flexibility and discovery. It’s not a time to focus on food lists titled “allowed” and “not allowed,” but rather focus on enjoyment around foods that nourish and support their innate wonder.
A healthier approach to food and wellness
With a few tweaks, we can actually bring many ideas from a well-executed keto diet over into a balanced eating approach for kids. Here are five ways we can support our children and teens to establish healthy habits outside of “dieting” or following the latest food trends.
1. Emphasize real foods
Offering a variety and balance of whole foods for breakfast, lunch, and dinner sets the stage for lifelong health. For healthy meal suggestions check out Healthy Lunches Teens Will Love and Healthy Dinner Ideas for Kids.
Our children need real foods that provide healthy fats, quality proteins, and nutrient-dense carbs.
Fat is an efficient energy source. It plays a critical role in immune health, neurological health, reproduction, and growth — and it’s part of every cell in the body. Fat is also needed for the absorption of vitamins A, D, E, and K.
Children need quality sources of omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids — the keto-approved list of healthy sources shown above will provide them with just these. The difference is that fats don’t need to make up as big a slice of the pie.
Proteins are made up of essential building blocks called amino acids. Adequate protein is needed for tissue growth and repair, immune and endocrine regulation, as well as blood sugar stability.
The list of quality protein food sources appropriate on the keto diet is also the list I would recommend for kids, but should make up a larger percentage of macronutrient portions.
Sugars, starches, and fibers all fall into the carbohydrate category. While the body can make its own sugars from other substrates, dietary sources of carbs provide children with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytonutrients, gut healing foods, and energy to power the demands of growth and learning.
The carb-friendly keto foods are all appropriate for kids, but real food starches like roots, tubers, and winter squashes, as well as unrefined, gluten-free grains such as oats, quinoa, and rice should also be added.
Over the years, I’ve gathered dozens of gluten free lunch ideas and dinner ideas that feature complex carbohydrates in moderate quantities.
2. Limit processed foods
Whether someone is following a ketogenic diet or not, we all benefit from limiting sugar, processed foods, and junky ingredients — kids are no exception!
Added sugars, refined flours, and artificial substances can initiate food addictions, blood sugar roller coasters, metabolic dysregulation, and behavioral issues. Ditch the soda, candy, packaged snack foods, pastries, and the overconsumption of pasta, cereals, and breads. Reserve treats for special home-cooked versions!
3. Cook meals at home
The benefits of cooking meals at home are magnified when you also include your kids in the process. It teaches important life skills, develops an appreciation for real food, and results in more adventurous eaters!
Control over ingredients
Any time you make a meal from scratch, you know exactly what goes into it — this naturally reduces refined carbs, sugars, processed oils, and artificial ingredients.
Cooking at home is an opportunity to spend time with your children — two key ingredients to good health are open ears and love. Weight issues and mental health problems can be a product of a poor diet and DISCONNECTION from supportive relationships.
Modeling healthy habits
Meals made in the kitchen and shared around the dining room table provide the chance to model healthy eating habits in front of your kids. One of the biggest influences on their choices is watching you and your relationship with food.
4. Put the scale away
Older children and teens can quickly become obsessed with numbers on the scale. Remind them that the numbers are arbitrary, and there are better indicators to pay attention to, such as energy levels, digestion, and mood. Put the scale away.
5. Focus on primal living habits
Bringing our family focus back to the basics of what we need to live optimally and happily can help prioritize our direction in this modern world. The seven pillars of peak performance remind us of what best nourishes our overall wellness.
The foods we offer our kids are only one element in their overall wellbeing, but arguably one of the most important. Cells develop, live, and thrive from the nutrients they get. Quality meats, colorful veggies and fruits, and healthy fats will build a strong base of nourishment to support your child’s health.
Support not only your child’s healthy body, but also the development of their mind. Encourage positive self-talk, affirmations, attainable goal setting, and time for presence and mindfulness.
Finding enjoyable physical activity is necessary for all of us. Exploring the natural world with your kids encourages movement patterns and mobility that build physical competence, health, and a thirst for exercise.
Encourage and provide opportunities for your children to connect with nature. It’s easy to go through our lives without touching the earth these days, but the healing, calming, centering, and appreciation that comes from such a connection is invaluable. Go to the park, take a hike, pitch a tent, or start a bug collection with your little ones — unplug!
We need play at all ages! Make time for your kids to get lost in the pure enjoyment of an activity that requires no agenda.
Encourage your child to have face to face time with friends, family, and community! Social support and relationships matter when we are cultivating healthy spirits in our youth.
Adequate sleep and downtime are non-negotiables! Sleep is how your child recovers, grows, and prepares for a new day. Even an optimal diet can’t make up for inadequate rest.
My favorite method for keeping myself and my family tapped into the seven pillars of wellness is using the Peak Potential Journal. You can get it here. It offers daily inspiration, goal-setting prompts, and room for creativity to keep us tuned in to what matters most.
In this article, we have looked at what the keto diet is, who it may be appropriate for, and why it is not the right nutritional approach for most children. Restrictive diets of any kind can lead to disordered eating, an unhealthy relationship with food, and nutrient deficiencies during a time when nourishment matters most.
We also considered the benefits of real food and primal living as a more well-rounded alternative for children and teens to establish long-term healthy habits and a healthy weight. Strategies such as offering a balance of whole foods, cooking together at home, and focusing on overall wellness can leave a positive influence.
If you are unsure of where to begin when it comes to transitioning your family to a real food lifestyle, I encourage you to try the 4 Weeks of Real Food program to set you on the right path! It can be a confusing road; let me guide you along.