Ketogenic diets are suddenly very popular among weight-concerned, who seem suddenly eager to eschew the pasta and pizzas that once carbo-loaded the American home. For proof, just look at the surge of internet searches for keto diets, which skyrocketed in 2018, and the food industries response to the soaring interest (grass-fed collagen anyone?). But as the keto movement goes door to door parents are struggling to reconcile their food restrictions with their children’s nutritional needs. And without very careful planning and forethought, parents on keto diets will teach their kids harmful lessons about something very basic: how to eat.
Keto dieters lose weight by putting their bodies in a state of ketogenesis, which occurs when cells are starved of the quick fuel from carbohydrates. Without carbohydrates, which are turned into glucose for energy, the body turns to fat stores which are broken down in the liver to ketonic acids. For adults, this is a way to get trim. For kids, it’s a disaster. Nutritionists recommend that nearly half of a child’s diet comes from carbohydrates like fruits, grains, and vegetables. Turning carbohydrates into glucose is the primary pathway to keep a kid’s legs running and minds buzzing.
Also, it’s important to note that good carbohydrates from fruits, grains, and veggies also come with fiber and a host of necessary nutrients. Take those things away and a kid is not only faced with limited options, but they are also faced with nutritional deficiencies that could have developmental repercussions that haunt them into adulthood.
Kids shouldn’t be on keto diets. That’s not up for debate. What probably should be is whether kids should be around keto diets.
There is no second-hand smoke equivalency when it comes to dieting, but kids who watch parents engage in keto dieting will likely be affected by that experience. That’s because kids look to adults for life guidance. An adult who stresses about a special fad diet — especially one that is specifically designed not to be long-term sustainable — is modeling unhealthy food behaviors. A fad diet suggests that going to uncomfortable extremes is key to having a healthy weight and feeling good about oneself. That’s not only false but extremely dangerous for children. Particularly kids approaching adolescence who are suddenly hyper-aware of their self-image.
Some parents might try to mitigate this damage by making different meals, or not eating with their family. But that can be just as harmful. Because one of the healthiest things a family can do together is share a meal. When that meal is fraught with restrictions, or children are given their own special food, it can not only damage good lessons about nutrition but also the sense of shared experience and family communion. That joy of sharing food at a dinner is linked to all of the amazing outcomes that are correlated with eating as a family, including better grades, better mental health, and decreased likelihood of drug addiction.
Of course, all of this information about the effect of fad dieting on children might leave parents who are concerned about their weight looking for a solution. Luckily, there is a family-friendly path to healthy weight loss. The prescription is fairly simple: Eat well-balanced, nutritious meals and play more actively with your kids.
These meals don’t have to be elaborate. They just have to include some grains, a protein, and vegetables. There’s also no need to stress out about whether a kid will eat. Just put the nutritious meal in front of them, sit down beside them and talk about something — anything — else. (Pro tip: Not everyone has to have equivalent portions.)
The play doesn’t need to be specific either. The activity might be a walk through the neighborhood, some rough-housing in the living room, or a game of chase in the park. The most important part is getting the body moving.
Does this mean that parents should release the floodgates on carbs? Well, no. But it’s really more a matter of calories than the carbs themselves. Sugary drinks, juices, and processed foods are often less nutritionally dense while being packed with calories. That’s not a good thing either. So moderation is the name of the game.
There’s nothing wrong with a family trying to be healthier. And there’s nothing wrong with losing weight or dieting. But fad diets should have no place in a family home. Keto dieting isn’t the secret to having a healthy family. Consistently solid nutrition is. Want to lose more weight? Play harder.