An Australian chef has become mired in controversy after devising a baby recipe book that is based on the paleo diet. But not all popular health regimes are safe for children
By Sue Quinn
1:38PM GMT 19 Mar 2015
Paleo and vegan. Elimination and low fat. Alkaline, carb-concious and raw. Sometimes it seems that every new dawn brings yet another healthy eating trend. But are these food fads safe for children?
Australian public health officials have placed the issue squarely on the table this month with warnings that a new recipe book for babies and toddlers by celebrity chef and paleo-advocate Pete Evans is potentially lethal. Of key concern is a DIY baby formula based on bone broth and liver – a concoction containing 10 times the safe amount of Vitamin A for babies, putting them at risk of death, officials said. For the uninitiated, the paleo diet encourages us to eat the way our Paleolithic ancestors did; eliminating sugar, processed foods, grains and legumes and focusing instead on meat, fish, vegetables and fruit.
Undeterred and delighting in the publicity, Evans plans to push ahead and independently publish his book Bubba Yum Yum: The Paleo Way for New Mums, Babies and Toddlers in April – although it’s unclear if the baby formula recipe will be included. If the comments on his Facebook page are anything to go by, he has plenty of support from members of his “tribe” who still intend to buy it. And there seems to be support in the UK, too, for feeding children the paleo way – a diet where meat, seafood, eggs, nuts, seeds, fruit and vegetables are allowed but grains, rice, potatoes and processed foods are off the menu.
I asked parents on Mumsnet what they thought about feeding babies and toddlers a paleo or other restricted diet. The response was spirited. One parent thought it was “bonkers” and tantamount to child abuse, another said “it wasn’t sensible for anyone, let alone kids” and one worried that restricted eating regimes encouraged “unhealthy relationships with food”. But many parents favoured a flexible paleo-style diet for its emphasis on eliminating processed foods, others reported raising perfectly healthy mini vegetarians and a significant number cited health improvements after removing gluten, sugar or dairy from their child’s diet.
Many vegetarian parents don’t feed their children meat (REX)But is it safe to extend adult food fads to babies and young children?
Yes, but with certain provisos, is the possibly surprising verdict of Dr Colin Michie, Chair of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health’s Nutrition Committee. He said that breast milk was the optimum food for babies less than six months old – definitely not bone broth – but there were no health risks linked to restricted diets for older children, so long as parents calculated their nutritional intake carefully. He added there was a general problem in the UK of children being deficient in iron, Vitamins D and A, calcium and other nutrients, and that parents should give all youngsters aged six months to five years a daily multivitamin.
“There’s no risk in general from restricted diets, “ Dr Michie said. “We know this from a large number of children with food allergies on prescribed restricted diets, and they do well. Humans are very adaptable. But there are a few basic principles to keep in mind.”
He said children aged six months to three years underwent “truly phenomenal” brain development that needed the support of a varied diet rich in fatty acids, vitamins minerals and vitamins. Toddlers and teenagers also need to consume sufficient calcium to support bone development.
Is it safe to extend adult food fads to babies and young children?“The metabolic rate of toddlers is much higher than for adults so their nutritional requirements are different and you can’t equate them to adults,” he said. “But you can get away with feeding them a varied but quite restricted diet and they will be OK.”
Of much greater concern than food fads was the problem of child obesity in the UK, he said, and youngsters suffering health problems due to eating too much processed food and insufficient fresh fruit and vegetables.
But not all health professionals are comfortable with restricted diets for babies and young children, and the following guides are worth considering.
The Paleo diet is based on the eating habits of hunter-gatherer ancestors during the Paleolithic area, before the development of agriculture 10,000 years ago. The British Dietetic Association says that while the emphasis on avoiding processed food is commendable, the diet runs counter to current advice to reduce our meat consumption. The Association says most versions of the diet exclude important food groups including wholegrains, dairy and legumes, and lacks variety.
The NHS Live Well website urges parents to “take care” when feeding children a vegan diet. The plant-based regime is high in fibre, which means children might fill up before they have consumed sufficient calories, so parents are advised to ensure youngsters eat high-calorie foods such as hummus, bananas, nut and seed butters, as well as pulses and food made from pulses. It points out that while essential Omega-3 fatty acids are found in certain vegetable oils, they are chemically different to those found in oily fish and may not offer the same protection against heart disease.
Fat is an essential nutrient for everyone, especially children, according to Charlotte Stirling-Reed, registered nutritionist and media expert for the Nutrition Society. “For children, getting enough of the right type of fats is also vital as fat is essential for the growth and functioning of the brain. A low-fat diet is not appropriate for young children. “
Multiple exclusion diets
Increasing numbers of children suffer food allergies, according to Dr Colin Michie, and many respond well after removing certain foods from their diet. But he advises parents who believe their child suffers from a food-related health problem to seek medical advice rather than cutting out foods without medical supervision. Some dieticians believe many people with so-called food allergies may be needlessly excluding whole food groups from their diet.